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Judging ‘Green Book’ by Its Cover

The latest entry in the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ School of Simplistic History and Sentimentality is larded with problems. Why do movies like this keep happening?

Participant Media/Ringer illustration

The poster says it all. The image advertising Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, depicting Viggo Mortensen behind the wheel of a luxury vehicle and Mahershala Ali sitting regally in the back, is almost shameless in its manipulation. It’s a comforting vision for the white viewer, reminding them of the “progress” the country has made regarding racism. It also positions them as the direct source of that progress. Yes, white people are the real heroes for occasionally setting their privilege aside to recognize black people as human beings. The assumption that racism can end through friendship allows white people to be credited both with the beginning and end of the oppression of black people in the U.S. That, more than anything, seems to be the purpose of Green Book. It comes from the Forrest Gump and Driving Miss Daisy School of Simplistic History and Sentimentality with a curriculum that boasts discussion of important, relevant issues (race, politics, prejudice, etc.) in a syrupy, candy coating with all the comforts of being set firmly in the past. As long as Hollywood needs a yearly reminder that it’s not racist, these films will continue to have a place in popular culture.

Green Book tells the story of working-class Italian American bouncer Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) and his unexpected friendship with Jamaican American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) that began in 1962. Shirley hires Vallelonga to be his chauffeur and unofficial bodyguard during a tour of the South with his jazz trio. Vallelonga is racist, but he needs the money to get his family through the holidays. Shirley is turned off by Vallelonga’s crassness, but he needs to be able to safely travel without fear of abusive discrimination. On their journey, Vallelonga learns how to be friends with a black person. Shirley learns how to ... enjoy fried chicken.

I wish I were kidding. There is an entire sequence in this film in which Vallelonga forces Shirley to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car. Despite the obvious stereotypes, Shirley had spent his entire life up to that point never having eaten a single fried drumstick. Luckily for him, a white man appeared to force this necessary cultural experience by shoving a drumstick in his face and commanding him to eat it. This scene underlines one of the most ill-advised narrative threads in Green Book: that Shirley isn’t “black” enough. He doesn’t listen to Aretha Franklin, he doesn’t appear to have any close black friends, and he has no concept of soul food. For these reasons, we are treated to this misguided, degrading scene.

Many of the jokes in Green Book are derived from moments of humiliation for Shirley, and minorities in general. A scene in which Vallelonga and his wife (Linda Cardellini) discuss “traveling while black” was met with loud jeers from the audience at the screening I attended. Racial slurs such as “eggplant,” “moolie,” and “chink” also got audible laughs. In a later scene, the fried chicken joke returns, as Shirley is presented an honorary fried chicken dinner at a renovated plantation home where he performs. After dinner, he is told that he must use an outhouse instead of the bathroom. When he refuses, Shirley’s insistence on using a real bathroom is framed as a source of annoyance for Vallelonga. The film tries so hard to underline differences for comedic effect but fails at creating any common ground.

It’s difficult to see Green Book as anything more than a Hallmark film with an overinflated budget and sense of self-importance. It’s an odd Ken doll of a film, rarely alluding to the sexuality and humanity of its characters. The world Shirley and Vallelonga inhabit seems oddly bereft of stakes. Scenes of brutality occur offscreen. Sex is never depicted. Viewers are privy to only the aftermath. As a result, the film’s discussions of race and masculinity are shallow. Green Book functions more like a desperate plea from Farrelly for us to forget the last decade of his career. That’s understandable, but I wish he’d had the decency to wipe the nervous beads of sweat off his forehead before they dripped onto the film.

After breaking out in the ’90s with comedy favorites Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, Peter Farrelly (and his brother and collaborator, Bobby Farrelly) had middling success in the 2000s with duds like Shallow Hal and a broad, unfunny remake of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid. They continued their creative downturn until crashing and burning with 2014’s misguided sequel Dumb and Dumber To. Due to family tragedy, Bobby took a break from filmmaking, leading Peter to make Green Book as a solo venture.

I can’t help but wonder what the film would have looked like if it were given the full Farrelly brothers comic treatment. It likely would have been worse, but it likely would have been less neutered than the film we got. This becomes especially apparent in one climactic scene, when we see Shirley naked on the floor of the YMCA with a white man who is implied to be his one-night stand. The starkness of this scene with its muted colors and solemn tone is a noticeable departure from the brightly colored, optimistic film that surrounds it.

Like many shallow accounts of history, Green Book perpetuates the false notion that black people were safe from discrimination in Northern states during Jim Crow. This is an easily disproved myth that nonetheless allows filmmakers with a short memory to simplify America’s racist history by shifting blame to the “uneducated” part of the country. This optimistic view of ’60s New York is especially ridiculous considering the other film with racial themes coming out this holiday season, the far superior If Beale Street Could Talk, which takes place a decade later and highlights the very real issues black people were dealing with in New York during that time.

As Shirley, the usually magnetic Ali seems to be holding back. His approximation of the musician mistakes stiffness for dignity, often making Shirley come off as an alien unfamiliar with earthly customs. I wasn’t surprised to find that the screenplay (cowritten by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Vallelonga’s son Nick) was written with no input from Shirley’s surviving family. In fact, when given the opportunity to say their piece, Shirley’s family disputed many of the claims made about him in the film. According to them, Shirley’s isolation from family and the black community was fabricated for the film. This makes sense when you consider that every detail given about Shirley only serves to exaggerate the supposed differences between him and Vallelonga. He’s positioned as a wealthy man with no concept of his heritage against a working-class man whose extended family is constantly onscreen eating, cracking jokes, and openly wondering how their relative is doing.

Mortensen commits fully to his broad Italian caricature. Vallelonga is always eating, cursing, and inciting violence. He’s quick to anger, quick to feel disrespected, and even quicker to laugh it all off as a joke. You can find all these qualities in the mob-related film and television shows in which the real-life Vallelonga appeared later in life—Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, and, of course, The Sopranos. Mortensen has the privilege of playing a man known to the public, with a healthily populated IMDb and a son who’s invested in mythologizing the greatness of his father.

Green Book was created with a built-in character imbalance and, predictably, it is the black man who is shortchanged by the narrative. This is made worse by the fact the film operates on the falsehood that both white people and black people have an equal amount to learn regarding racism and prejudice. Naively, it believes that small-scale bonding sessions are the most effective way to do so. In the mind of the optimistic white male filmmaker, friendships are the mechanisms that bring institutional racism tumbling down. This, of course, ignores the obvious fact that many proud racists in history were raised by black and brown nannies.

The most troubling aspect of Green Book is that much of the narrative functions to “humble” the black man. Vallelonga is already humble; he’s working class and family-oriented, and he listens to “black” music and doesn’t mind pinching pennies. The main thing the two men have in common is pride. But while Shirley’s pride is constantly on trial, Vallelonga’s attitude goes largely unchecked. When we are introduced to Vallelonga, we learn he often loses job opportunities due to his violent tendencies. He is then hired specifically for those violent tendencies, and his fights are championed by the screenplay. In many instances, Vallelonga’s violence is the only thing preventing Shirley from becoming the victim of a hate crime. The film identifies this character flaw only once, but this brief realization is quickly forgotten.

Green Book’s tendency to reward white people for minimal growth may draw comparisons to last year’s misbegotten “issue film,” Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but a closer look reveals the two films have little in common. Martin McDonagh’s ill-conceived and embarrassingly overpraised film presents a nihilistic view of the U.S. where impulse prevails over reason and everyone, even those who present themselves to be “woke,” are mainly in it for themselves. It exists in a world where a woman who presents herself to be antiracist uses the word “nigger” with casual familiarity and does nothing when a black woman, who is also her coworker and best friend, is imprisoned on trumped-up drug charges.

Instead, Green Book operates in a Fisher Price world, where every heart can be changed and friendship always prevails. Vallelonga even gets an “I learned something” moment in one of the final scenes of the film, when he tells his family members not to use racial slurs. Then, like magic, his black BFF appears at the door just in time for a predictable heartfelt reunion scene. One wonders why Farrelly didn’t just commit fully to the gooeyness of the scene by having one of Vallelonga’s sons stand up in his chair and shout: “God bless us, every one!” Green Book fails as a comedy and racial commentary, but at least Farrelly was able to make racists comfortable for Christmas. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Jourdain Searles is a writer, podcaster, and comedian in New York City.