Just a few short weeks ago, director Peter Farrelly’s drama Green Book took home three Academy Awards, including the Academy’s highest honor for Best Picture. While the team behind the film were celebrating the big win, controversy swelled around the drama centered around an unlikely bond that crossed the racial barriers of its time. It’s not hard to see why Green Book became the most controversial Best Picture winner in over a decade as the film seems an anachronistic examination of racial issues in America. By the same measure, though, it’s not hard to see why Green Book appeals to older audiences as its anachronistic approach to the American racial divide aims for a feelgood story about how personal prejudice could be overcome not through education and introspection but by taking a job that puts you in the proximity of a black man for two months. But now viewers who missed Green Book in theaters can view the Oscar-winning film as it arrives on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
In the ‘60s, Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), known as Tony Lip, is a bouncer at the Copacabana where he uses brute force to eject any rowdy customers. But the famed nightclub is about to shutdown for a couple of months for renovations leaving Tony out of work. Tony is a man of pure blunt force, an uneducated man whose earned a living with his fists. He likes to eat – a lot – and has plenty of his own prejudices, as evidenced by the scene in which he throws some glasses used by black repairmen in the trash. Eventually, Tony gets a call for a job interview. The Italian-American enters the garish estate of Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an accomplished pianist about to embark on a tour of the Deep South. Dr. Shirley needs a man to act as his driver and bodyguard on the journey through the heart of American racism in the era of segregation.
The first moments of Green Book play out like a mismatched buddy comedy. Here you have an inelegant racist individual reluctantly taking a job for an elegant, educated black man. They ride together through America learning about the injustice below the Mason-Dixon line as well as learning valuable lessons about life from one another. Green Book is so close to being a kind of innocuous, inoffensive wish fulfillment about race in America and how our better angels can overcome our darkest demons.
Where Green Book gets into trouble is the way it keeps Dr. Shirley at a distance, treating him as some kind enigmatic figure who doesn’t adhere to traditional stereotypes. This results in a number of ill-conceived scenes, each worse than the one that preceded it. It’s galling to behold scenes in which Tony Lip teaches Dr. Shirley about black American music, including Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. It just continues to get worse as Tony then introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and even goes as far as to explain to him how to eat it without utensils. This all culminates in a scene where Tony Lip – whom I must remind you threw away glasses used by black men – explains to Dr. Shirley, a man subjected to degrading treatment throughout their shared journey, that he is better connected to the black experience than Dr. Shirley. It’s the tone deaf icing on top, a bewildering scene so shockingly out of touch that you wonder just when this script was written. (For a better examination of where Green Book falls short on so many racial issues, I highly recommend Justin Chang’s fantastic piece for the Los Angeles Times.)
Another major issue concerning Green Book is that these two men eventually form a friendship and through that friendship Tony Lip is able to shed his bigotry. However, the character doesn’t really earn the transformation as presented in the film. Basically all he did was spend two months in close proximity with a black man – a job he was paid to perform – through a part of the country whose racism dwarfed his own. This unearned transformation and historical setting gives the racism that Dr. Shirley endures in Green Book a distance from the enduring heart of bigotry in America, a way of softening the horrors so deeply engrained within the American id as a sin buried in the past when its rotten heart is still beating loudly.
It’s not all bad with Green Book. Mahershala Ali gives a strong performance as Dr. Don Shirley, a man struggling to maintain his dignity in world that is out to rob him of his dignity. Here is a man who is educated, a world class musician who is seen as inferior to the uneducated, binge-eating brute driving him around simply because of the color of his skin. While I didn’t care much for the movie as a whole, Mahershala Ali’s Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor was earned as he’s easily the best thing in the movie. Viggo Mortensen, on the other hand, doesn’t deliver his best work, though he’s very committed as the gluttonous tough guy – including one particular scene where he folds up and consumes a whole pizza. Sadly, though, the great Linda Cardellini is given a thankless role as the Dolores, Tony’s wife, which basically requires her to get teary-eyed when reading letters sent home from the road.
Taking home the Oscar for Best Picture means that Green Book has its place in cinematic history. However, what place it will hold can only be determined by time. There will be those, like myself, who find the film to be a well-intentioned misfire, a film crafted without a malicious intent but completely oblivious when it comes to the lingering stain of racism on America. Of course, there will be those who love Green Book and are comforted by its odd couple pairing, and I’d likely say that those will be of the older generation. Regardless, Green Book will remain divisive for the foreseeable future but it’s now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD so that everyone can make up their own damn mind about the reigning Best Picture winner.
A well-intentioned but tone deaf drama, Green Book has proven to be one of the most divisive Best Picture winners of recent memory.