green book

- Review by Oisín Walsh

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Green Book is quite formulaic in its narrative. This isn’t a terrible thing though. It just means the narrative is familiar and it is following a structure that we’re used to. Fortunately, Green Book is an entertaining film that feels fresh even if it isn’t exactly working off a new concept.

The plot follows Tony “Lip” Vallelonga a bouncer for the Copacabana who is hired as a driver/bodyguard for “Doc” Donald Shirley, a concert pianist as he goes on tour through the Deep South in 1962. The title comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book which was a guidebook that sought to help African-Americans find establishments which would serve them. Like I’ve said, the premise is hardly new or innovative; a mismatched pair is confined to each other’s company and eventually they grow a respect and a rapport for one another. However, to dismiss the film for this reason is not entirely fair because the conversations are witty, the scenes are often fun and sometimes tense and the friendship that is formed is truly memorable.  

This is no doubt due to the skill of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali who each embody their characters so well that is a joy to see them play off each other so well. The contrast between Vallelonga’s uncouth and unmannerly behaviour and Shirley’s fastidious and calm nature is not a dynamic that is new to a Hollywood narrative, but it is well realised by the actors so that they never fall into absurd, dull caricatures. These are two very real characters. However, I am very sentimental so this type of narrative appeals to me; I think it’s nice to see two people become friends over time in a film, particularly in this case because it is naturally formed and doesn’t feel forced.

Unfortunately, there is not much to the film’s visuals. In one of Tony’s letters to his wife back home in New York he mentions how he didn’t realise how beautiful the country they live in is, yet we never get to see the same beauty in the landscape. This is disappointing for what is essentially a road movie; all of the locations look very much the same. The only indication we have that they have travelled into a different state is a helpful map showing their progress through the country and captions to declare where they have arrived. This may seem overly critical but the scenes set in the car and on the road would have become incredibly repetitive had that car not been occupied by two brilliant personalities.

Is this film challenging? Not really. It is hardly on the level of BlacKkKlansman in terms of the depth to which it engages with systemic racism in the United States and it is certainly a far quieter film than the absurd and hyper political Sorry to Bother You. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it doesn’t ignore the degree to which racism exists. Shirley faces some form of injustice in the majority of the scenes he is in and casual but offensive racism is voiced in Vallelonga’s home, even by himself. I imagine there would have been far more violent displays of racism present in the Deep South at this point in history, but Green Book chooses not to depict the extremity of this violence.

This film is often upbeat and entertaining but it isn’t thoughtless or inconsiderate when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues. The characters are fun and complex, the dialogue is well written and the story is well told. You likely won’t be challenged to consider the deeper roots of racism from this film. But if you enjoy it, and I imagine many will, you will probably look up the music of Don Shirley and learn more about his life. That is a victory in itself I suppose; giving exposure to forgotten figures of the past.