By the end of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony less than a month ago, it was clear that the Academy was more inclined to choose crowd pleasing movies than high quality movies. Two notes were evident of this surprise. One of them was giving Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that was pretty small for a larger than life figure, the most wins with four total. The other clue was giving Green Book, an easy to digest movie about racism, the top prize of Best Picture over better films like BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite and Roma.
So how exactly did we get here? And does it deserve to even be here? I’ll explain the first part shortly, but know that when all is said and done, I’m still going to consider Green Book to be one of the best films of 2018.
The best thing that Green Book has going for it is its two leads. Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, an Italian New Yorker working at the Copacabana. We’re introduced to him as he is throwing someone out of the nightclub for causing a disturbance and breaking the guy’s nose in the process. Tony is very street smart, earning the nickname ‘Tony Lip’ for being an amazing bullshitter (his words, not mine). His character, I will admit, is a bit of an Italian stereotype and makes him sound like he had a small part in a Martin Scorsese movie.
The nightclub closes for renovations, leaving Tony to find a way to make money. He gets a couple offers, and makes small money through a hot dog eating contest. When he gets back, he receives a call about driving a doctor around in the south. Tony then finds out he’s actually an African-American pianist by the name of Don Shirley, embarking on a concert tour in the deep south during a time when racism was still going strong. It’s also where we learn that the titular green book is a motorist’s guide to hotels and restaurants a black person was allowed to go to.
Mahershala Ali is simply stellar as Don Shirley. He can come off as a stick in the mud for both comedic and dramatic purposes, making both of them work successfully. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when he is confronted by Tony about performing for rich white people who praise his music but still treat him like any other black person. In anger, Shirley replies “So if I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?” This quote is the perfect lead in for what many are criticizing the film for; its white savior narrative.
The White Savior
For those who are unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, the white savior narrative is a trope commonly used in films in which a white person intervenes a situation to get a non-white character out of said situation. They usually come in the form of an inspirational teacher or a man of principle such as Atticus Finch. The majority of its usage comes with the tagline “Based on a True Story”, and Green Book is as guilty of using it as any other film.
There are several instances within the movie where Tony has to use his gift as a bullshitter to get Shirley out of situations. One scene that stood out to me is when Shirley goes to a bar to get a drink and gets harassed by two or three white men. Tony intervenes by claiming he has a gun on him. In addition to that, the bartender pulls out a shotgun and lets Shirley and Tony out of the bar with only a bruise on the former’s face.
Green Book may only go down as one of the worst Best Picture winners in history on the basis of its competition, the same way Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain over a decade ago. On its own, Green Book is still a good movie elevated by the back-and-forth between its two lead actors. I have reason to believe that time will be kinder to this movie, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see its conversation go the other way. As it stands now, I’ll recommend it to friends and family as a feel good movie, something people desperately seek in these divisive times.