Peter Farrelly's 'Green Book' Has No Relevance in Trump’s America

‘Green Book,’ starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, is a feel-good movie, but its take on 1960s race relations in the U.S. is simplistic kitsch

Viggo Mortensen (left) and Mahershala Ali in “Green Book.”
Lionsgate / Universal Pictures

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At the start of “Green Book,” the first picture directed by Peter Farrelly without his brother, Bobby, we learn that the film was inspired by a true story. The use of the word “inspired” rather than “based on” means that we needn’t probe for the historical truth in every detail of the story as it’s told on the screen. (Even so, the family of one of the two protagonists, the pianist Don Shirley, has protested his depiction.) “Inspired” also suggests that the aim of the disconnect from historical truth is to allow the filmmakers to create a historical, social and cultural allegory, which in this case relates to the issue of race relations in America. The main aim of the allegory is to provide viewers with enjoyable entertainment and allow them to leave the picture with a feeling of exaltation – in short, “Green Book” is what the American film industry terms a feel-good movie.

The film is in fact enjoyable; as for satisfaction and exaltation, however, that’s a different story. The time is 1962. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) – who was trained as a classical pianist but chose popular music because he didn’t believe a black musician playing Chopin would be accepted in America – has built a successful career. He is part of a trio that plays crowd-pleasing jazz, and has even appeared at the White House. Now he decides to go on a tour that will include southern states, where separation between whites and blacks is still strictly observed. So he needs not only a driver to chauffeur him from show to show and make the necessary arrangements, but also one who will be able to protect him from local racists.

He chooses for the task Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American who is a security guard and lives in the Bronx with his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and their two sons. A tendentious scene at the beginning of the film portrays him as a bigot, not necessarily a self-conscious one, but more in the spirit of the time. Two black men are working in Tony’s house, and Dolores gives them water to drink; afterward, Tony throws the glasses they used into the garbage – though Dolores retrieves them and puts them in the sink.

But it’s not only ethnic origins that make Tony and Don Shirley diametrical opposites. The Jamaican-born Shirley lives in a flashy apartment above Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, and in his first meeting with Tony he interviews him while sitting on a throne-like chair, wearing a white robe and adorned with gold jewelry. Tony, in contrast, is a representative of the working class. He may be a racist, but he loves his family and is goodhearted, although he’s also an insatiable prattler, eats nonstop (Mortensen added a hefty number of kilos for the role) and is coarse and uneducated.

Following significant hesitation, Tony decides to accept Shirley’s offer, even though it means having to be away from home for a few months. Still, the family needs the money. The two set off in the musician’s Cadillac, with the two other members of the trio following in a second, identical Cadillac. Tony constantly talks and eats as he drives, while Shirley sits stone-faced in the back and forbids Tony to smoke in the car. Will these two flagrant opposites become friends and change each other? Is the Earth round?

Shocked by racism

The deeper into the South they drive, the more blatantly white-black separation shows its ugly face. Shirley can perform in a hotel for a packed audience of white folks who welcome him enthusiastically, but he is prohibited from eating or sleeping in the hotel. Other black artists faced the same humiliation in the southern states, among them Nat King Cole, who is mentioned in the film because of his daring in this regard. Tony and Shirley have to sleep in different motels, one for whites, the other for blacks only. The movie’s title refers to “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” a travel guide listing places that served blacks, published by the wonderfully named Victor Hugo Green.

The connection between Tony and Shirley develops along two parallel axes. Tony is increasingly shocked by the depth of the racism he discovers in the South, but also by Shirley’s ignorance of black culture. The jazz pianist, for example, has no idea who Little Richard and Chubby Checker are – he hears their songs for the first time on the radio during the trip, and likes it. Nor has he ever eaten fried chicken, which according to the stereotype, is supposed to be the favorite food of black people.That lacuna, too, will be addressed during the trip.

Unlike the white Tony, Shirley, a black man, has an identity problem. In a particularly melodramatic scene, he declares, weeping – the mawkishness enhanced by pouring rain – that he has no idea who he is or what he is. Caucasian Tony will fix that problem. He even says to Shirley at one point that he’s blacker than him. Not surprisingly, the film, which shows once again a white person saving a black person, stirred controversy in the African-American community.

The ties between Tony and Shirley also develop at a more personal level. Tony promised his wife he would write to her during the trip, and when Shirley sees that his chauffeur has no idea what to say, he, in the best Cyrano de Bergerac style, writes for him. Dolores and her girlfriends are bowled over by the beauty of the letters. Shirley is gay, and gets into a tangle over this in one of the southern states. Tony doesn’t care about Shirley’s sexual identity – having worked as a bouncer in some of New York’s most prestigious nightclubs, he’s familiar with homosexuality. That’s also why the film, which is presented entirely through the eyes of its white protagonist, makes no reference to Shirley’s sexual inclination other than in this one incident.

The movie affords an enjoyable experience because it is written, directed and performed efficiently. Mortensen and Ali play their parts well, alongside each other and with each other, even if their performance is mannered at times. However, the script, which Nick Vallelonga, son of the real Tony, helped write, is so programmed that almost every melodramatic and sentimental plot move is foreseeable.

A more serious problem concerns the fact that the film was produced in 2018. Though set in the past, the picture sets out to cast a look from the past to the present; that is its way of displaying relevance. Spike Lee did it more impressively, sharply and trenchantly in “BlacKkKlansman,” which is also based on a true story (from the 1970s) and, like “Green Book,” portrayed the developing bond between a black man and a white man. At its conclusion, it shifted into the present with the aid of archival footage of the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.

Farrelly’s movie comes across as the total opposite of Lee’s. It takes place at the beginning of the 1960s and also looks like a picture that was made back then, when American cinema was just starting to deal with the issue of race relations and portrayed situations of a striving for equality. It even looks more rudimentary than films of that time, which possessed a certain degree of basic boldness, even if they sometimes tended to formulaic tendentiousness.

Whereas Spike Lee’s film asserts that nothing has changed between the past in which it is set and the present in which it is being made, Farrelly’s picture is of no relevance in Donald Trump’s America – unless its relevance stems from its ambition to provide the American public with a good feeling in these unsettled times. The occupation with racism in 1960s America is translated in the movie into simplistic, sentimental kitsch, which creates for present-day America a reactionary white fantasy.