Written by: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov
Time after time we get opportunities to learn from our mistakes in all aspects of life but the most important resulting action comes from taking action from these lessons. Too often when the lessons are learned, we just go right back into the nonsense and have to continue to think about the entire charade once again. This continually occurs with ‘white savior” films and the damage they cause. Sure enough, even with its intentions, Green Book falls into this category in all the worst ways even when featuring some of my favorite people in the industry.
Recently unemployed, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) receives the opportunity to serve as a driver for talented musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a tour in the Midwest and the South. As the two butt heads for the way they speak and act, the two begin a relationship and learn more about each other’s struggles.
In full transparency, when this film came to the big screen I was rooting so hard for it because of the cast. Viggo Mortensen remains one of my heroes in the world of cinema. He has portrayed my favorite character in all of film in Aragorn within my favorite trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Mahershala Ali has proven to be one of the best actors in the game today and has accrued immense respect by me and everyone else. The chance of having them work together appeared like a match made in heaven, but even they could not salvage the horrid core of this movie as it elects to tell this story through the eyes of a bigot and never does anything thematically relevant to its story.
As with many “white savior” movies, it takes a story where the exceptional individual is the person of color but we get the narrative told from the perspective of the white individual. On top of that, there will certainly be a moment where the white individual saves the person of color or teaches them a valuable lesson. Green Book fits this to a tee but does not even do the basic work of actually making any discernible change in Tony Lip as a character. The film tries to make the argument that he’s no longer racist by the end of this story, but I would say he more so likes Don Shirley rather than learning not to hold negative beliefs about Black people in general. Just a complete mishap with whatever positive intention this film possibly began with.
This film undoubtedly has its sweet moments throughout and it became understandable why many enjoy it for the journey it has between these two but this puts itself in a difficult situation here unnecessarily. It ultimately fails with its intention, which was to have a message about racism being solved if people were just nice to each other. Defenses that this film was just a road trip movie where two men learned about their differences and from each other hold absolutely no water, because the film tried to tackle much more. When I was in high school, I got points off on an essay because the title of my final submission was not good enough. That grade taught me about the importance of a title. This film could have been called “Tony and Don” or “The Friendship Trip.” No, they chose to name it Green Book named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a guide for African-Americans to locate safe restaurants and hotels in the Jim Crow South. Once the screenwriters chose this title, they were entering into an arena where they need to have a message, and it was naive at best.
This fairly basic and unfulfilling approach to telling this story makes more sense with the knowledge of Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga serving as one of the co-writers for the feature. Writing this film through the perspective of his father, which cleans up the image as much as possible but when further context gets added, like the perspective of Don Shirley’s family gets thrust into reality, it muddles the perfect little picture this film would like to paint about this relationship.
The biggest crime this film committed was its erasure of the great Don Shirley. He was one of the most artistically gifted men to ever live and he was relegated to the dreaded “magical negro” role where he enlightened the white man about not being racist. In the film, Shirley is seen as a person disconnected from his family and too uppity so Tony Lip has to show him how to be a Black person. From cringey lines like “your people love the fried chicken” and where Tony insists Shirley must enjoy jazz because of his skin color, this film simply does not do itself any favors whatsoever.
There remains nothing productive left to say about this feature other than rambling because it just falls apart in its attempts to be heartwarming. Dealing with racism should not be heartwarming in order for people to watch this and feel vindicated for the racist acts they have committed, but hey they were nice to that one Black fella that one time like Tony Lip, so it’s okay. There really are no other words. An absolute embarrassment of a feature film and it truly broke my heart to see two of the actors I respect the most in the industry attach themselves to his project.