Review: ‘Green Book’ (Casual Racism, Willful Ignorance)

Assumed differences conceal shared similarities.

Italian-American Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), works in NYC as a bouncer, chauffeur, or “whatever” to make ends meet; he’s even capable of creating his own opportunities but is known for his work ethic. An opportunity presents itself during a downturn: driving for a respected classically trained pianist — an African-American named Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) — on an eight-week concert tour for a record label. The catch: the tour venues dip into the pro-segregation Deep South of the United States. Being 1962, both Tony and Don have their assumptions about one another, but the money’s good and both men secretly enjoy a good challenge… even if it’s one another.

There have been plenty of awards-season films championing changing attitudes regarding civil rights, race relations, and human empathy. Recent films such as Loving and Hidden Figures have explored falsehoods as well as expectations, but films like The Help can also minimize impact by making “casual racism” seem quaint and old-fashioned, most often when the lead character is white. Based on a “true friendship,” does Green Book add to the overall conversation or merely play to trope seeking end-of-year awards and recognition for subject matter?

Clocking in at 135 minutes, the film manages to take its time while covering a massive amount of content, edited to the bone and clever in choosing its longer moments. Both Mortensen and Ali bring their A-game, but the cinematography feels almost fable-like, an assurance everything’s going to work out even when things seem their worst. If a positive guarantee seems a bit of a cheat for a dramatic film tackling a tough subject, it’s a welcome bit of fluff in today’s political climate: humanity has done and can continue to do better.

For the uninformed, the title refers to “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” a publication that suggested trouble-free accomodations for African-Americans in racially challenged tourist destinations. While mentioned more as a nod than an actual plot device, that such a travel guide needed to exist at all is a reminder that some United States citizens are born more equal than others. What makes the film work is that the two main characters not only view one another through the lens of their own experience but in anticipation of how they believe they are perceived, leading to plenty of awkward moments and revelations of interest.

Condensing story elements to stuff a lifetime of facts into the span a feature film, a specific beat stands out. At the beginning of his character arc, Tony Lip’s “discreet racism” fails to go unnoticed by his wife (Linda Cardellini) although she hides her disappointment, yet a later plot point touching upon homosexuality is subsequently dismissed with a single line of dialogue. Dancing around the specifics, the dismissal here appears to be a compromise between including a source-material truth while sidelining exploration of its significance for the sake of running time. In a film about overcoming prejudice, it’s a glaring mystery that goes criminally unsolved: what don’t we know? As included here, it’s just another of many moments that happily plays against type, resulting in genuine surprises throughout the film.

Privilege doesn’t mean life isn’t hard; it means life isn’t as hard for some because of where they were born and who their parents were. Movies like this aren’t just a reminder that things used to be bad; they’re a warning things could be worse, and it’s nice to see a story come to light that doesn’t just overcome old intolerance but celebrates new friendship. As Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

Green Book is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence, suggestive material, and one lucky rock.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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