Following its huge festival success and holding five nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards at the end of February, Green Book is proving to be a hit with critics and audiences alike. Peter Farrelly, the director best known for comical releases Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, here takes to the drama genre, presenting a charming anti-racism narrative that promotes the idea of embracing one’s own identity, regardless of what others may think.
This film has not been without controversy, with many of those involved releasing public apologies: starring actor, Viggo Mortensen, for publicly using the n-word in an interview; writer, Nick Vallelonga, for an anti-Islamic tweet; and director, Peter Farrelly, for indecently exposing himself on previous projects. These controversies hang over it. The picture has also faced criticism for not providing a realistic image of its characters, nor their relationship. Yet the film has remained a critical success, problematising just how far we can question the realities of a story that is self-proclaimed to be ‘Inspired by true events’.
“this tour is about more than just the music, as Tony is forced to confront his prejudices”
Set in the 1960s, the film follows Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a narrow-minded, assuredly racist Italian-American who takes a job as a chauffeur for the African-American pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on his tour of the American Deep South. We come to understand that this tour is about more than just the music, as Tony is forced to confront his prejudices as he witnesses his employer’s daily marginalisation.
This narrative, whilst perfectly charming, is undoubtedly very conservative, especially when compared to other Oscar-nominated films from the past year such as Black Panther and BlacKKKlansman, each providing a more considerate view of the appalling state of today’s race relations. Indeed, it is a shame to see the screen writers refuse to embrace a narrative in which the removal of prejudices is enough. Whilst Dr. Shirley is able to change Tony from racist to a friend, the film seems determined to strike a balance as Tony subsequently ‘helps’ his partner by imposing his own idea of a black identity onto Shirley – namely forcing black musicians and fried chicken onto him. Through presenting Tony as a hero, the film treads dangerously close to a white-saviour narrative, in which the repressed Other is ‘saved’ by the white man.
However, Tony’s actions do appear genuine and selfless as he and Don bond through their own feelings of isolation. This relationship between the lead characters is undoubtedly the film’s biggest success. Comical yet frequently heartfelt, Mortensen’s child-like naivety transforms the initially dislikeable Tony, as he grows from the narrow-minded villain to Shirley’s friend. It is however Ali that completely dominates the film. Bringing all of the class and demeanour necessary to play this complex character, I cannot imagine anyone better suited to the role. The Odd-Couple-like differences between Tony and Don, brilliantly captured in Sean Porter’s cinematography, provide a heart-warming relationship that shows that even the seemingly worst people have a capacity for good.
“the film lessens the notions of apartheid as a whole, instead focussing on one man’s experience through Tony’s white-washed eyes”
Considering the diversity of American show business at the time, this film very much places Don as the Other, with some genuinely hard to watch scenes in which he is humiliated due to his race and swiftly glossed-over sexuality. Climaxing in a heartfelt yet extremely clichéd conversation in the rain, Don speaks out about the injustices that he is subjected to daily, acting as a grim reminder of the size of the problem of racism. It is only in the background of the narrative that we see servants, slaves and sun-down towns, as the film lessens the notions of apartheid as a whole, instead focussing on one man’s experience through Tony’s white-washed eyes.
Whilst these sections of a wider narrative have been played down, Green Book’s focus on the unlikely friendship of its leads remains perfectly entertaining. With some excellent acting and a refreshing change in direction for Farrelly, there can be no doubt that this picture deserves to win awards. Yet to see it take home the Oscar for Best Picture, in amongst films that portray a far more nuanced view on race and identity, would unfortunately show that Hollywood still has a long way to go in order to truly diversify cinema.