It’s understandable that there’s been a backlash against the backlash against Green Book (most recently evidenced by its Producers Guild Awards win for best film). Whatever its broadcast failures in avoiding standard (decried) Hollywood tropes for addressing issues of race, its cardinal sin, when you drill down to its essence, is that it’s a good story well told. We can’t have that.
Green Book would likely have a much easier ride if it weren’t getting this awards attention, such that there’d be less of a spotlight on the imperatives it’s failing to meet. And of that awards conversation, yes, it’s a very likeable piece of entertainment, but it shouldn’t really be on Best Picture lists (for that matter, none of this year’s Oscar nominees are exactly jostling for greatness, albeit I’ve yet to see Vice…)
But, being that it is, it’s easy to see why it’s been recognised as something of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, which infamously won the Best Picture Oscar in a year when Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated (this year, we finally have Spike Lee and his movie nominated; it’s just that this time, that movie is really quite poor). I’m not about to defend Driving Miss Daisy; I’d have given the statuette to any of the other nominees that year first, by a considerable margin. However, it’s interesting to see how the characterisation of Green Book in the same manner – a movie set in an earlier time and also a movie that is essentially of an earlier time of the movies – has gone wider, so as to indict the audience itself in the intervening thirty years. Just professing to like the film (relatively) unreservedly can be construed as a political statement, even if it simply means singling oneself out as ignorant of the surrounding issues.
Because Green Book undeniably carries with it the old concerns of a white filmmaker assuming the licence to hold forth on issues of race while charging headfirst into subject matter that conveys both the “Magical Negro” trope (Dr Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, transforms the ingrained prejudice of Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip) and the “White Saviour” (Tony in turn protects Don and teaches him about “real” black people, finally welcoming the lonely soul into the bosom of his family). Like Driving Miss Daisy before it, it’s identified as a film about racism for white people (so that would be me), a comforting (‘60s set) period piece detached from how such issues transcribe to the immediacy of today’s world. Like Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s comfort food.
Another recent Best Picture Oscar nominee, Hidden Figures, was also couched in the comforting distance of history. That one came replete with a smugly patronising air in its handling of racism and sexism. One might suggest it’s every bit as much a film about racism aimed at white audience (albeit, a white female audience), but it mostly avoided the kind of brickbats Green Book has been subjected to. Perhaps because its calling card was empowerment (with three black protagonists), whereas Green Book is instantly mired in what are denounced as outmoded devices. Which might suggest it’s less important how well you tell your story (in Hidden Figures’ case, barely adequately) than it is who you tell it with.
In terms of such content, your mileage may depend on how much you feel like you’re being led by the nose, but I rarely had that response in this case. Much of the time, I was too busy laughing to feel I was being spoon-fed a past-its-sell-by-date agenda. Farrelly is, after all, a comedy director, often proudly of the lowest order, so he knows his way around the energy of a scene (despite its length, the picture is admirably well-paced). As with most comedies too, his main characters are quite broad in profile; it’s through the nuances of their growing friendship that Mortensen and Ali are able to maintain a balance of being both larger than life and affectingly “real”.
Mortenson, who received flak early in the season for failing to choose his language very carefully, has been magnanimous about the criticisms of the picture (“hopefully, people will judge everybody’s work on its merits. You can’t please everybody, and you can’t have everything”) Certainly, one can criticise the film for prizing Tony’s point of view over Shirley’s – it’s an entirely reasonable discussion point – but ultimately, it comes down to what’s best for this particular story, and whether it actually does Shirley a disservice to tell it that way (Carole Shirley Kimble thought so, calling it “a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life”).
Given this subject matter, many filmmakers’ instincts would have been to make the whole endeavour wearisomely cute and insufferably pat; the final scene, with Don showing up for at Tony’s for Christmas dinner and being greeted by his impossibly inclusive wife (the wonderful Linda Cardellini), seems manufactured for exactly that kind of schmaltz. And yet, it plays with moderation and understatement, avoiding overdoing the sentiment. The only time I really felt the picture giving in to the impulse to milk it was Don’s rain-soaked “if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me Tony, what am I?”, whereby Farrelly even invokes the elements to deliver Don’s distress in as ripe a fashion as possible. Mostly, though, I had the impression Farrelly was aware of the pitfalls of telling the story the way he told it, but found it irresistible to tell it that way anyway.
The chemistry between Mortenson (a De Niro-esque transformation, back when that meant something; you’re never preoccupied with this being the guy who once played Aragorn) and Ali (on a roll with this and True Detective Season Three) is palpable; beyond race, this is a comedy of manners, and the pair have a fantastic rapport.
Indeed, Ali is Steve Martin to Mortenson’s John Candy (come to think of it, the trip to the Deep South aside, Green Book is very similar to Planes, Trains and Automobiles). So much of what’s here is just very, very funny – Tony’s suggestion that squirrels will eat his discarded drink container; Don’s description of Tony’s letter to his wife as “more like a piecemeal ransom note”; the conversation about Don’s Orpheus in the Underworld recording, to name just three – that to talk only about the implications of Green Book failing to live up to current, politically-charged, hot-button expectations for such storytelling is to ignore how well-observed the piece is.
On the other hand, you can find a cogent argument for Green Book’s failings in telling this story this way now here, and why it should have been a movie about Don Shirley. I suspect, somehow, it wouldn’t have turned out as a feel-good dramedy if it had been. Indeed, for the most part, Green Book scrupulously avoids getting bogged down in notions of worthiness and self-importance; it might be better to see it simply as the latest highly enjoyable entry in the (very variable) road trip sub-genre, rather than a picture keyed to elicit the endorsement of unknowing reactionaries.
As for the Best Picture Oscar, who knows? There are downsides to Roma winning (it’s a vote by the Academy for Netflix), Bohemian Rhapsody (even if he doesn’t get mentioned, Bryan Singer is the credited director) and this (it’ll be seen as another “enlightened Hollywood showing how unenlightened it is”, à la Crash). Still, it might better to give it to something that creates a conversation, rather than a movie destined to be forgotten the day after. After all, ratings aren’t what they were.