There are certain well known tropes in Hollywood films which screenwriters seem to love and will go out of their way to slide into the script. Some of the more irritating for me include the stitched up parent who eventually comes round to their teenager’s decision to abandon med or law school to follow their passion, two characters getting into a heated argument and then while one is calling to apologise, the phone goes unanswered because the other has drunkenly crashed their car, and the brave lawyer changing the outcome of a court case with impassioned but inherently stupid emotional monologues that no reasonable judge would allow. And there’s a reason these are used, it’s because they’re an easy and effective way to seek a response from the audience.
Going into Green Book today, I was expecting an avalanche of these cliches that inevitably emerge in films depicting relationships between black and white people. I suspected that there would be at least one racist policeman who pull the main characters over for no reason, I suspected the black character would get beaten up at some point by red-neck Southern hicks and that a white character would publicly denounce other white characters for their racist behaviour and probably rip off a sign that says “Whites only” or punch a hole in it or something. All three of those thing happen in one way or another. While Green Book is certainly cliche ridden (the two leads even bond over fried chicken at one point), the difference between this film and one like Bohemian Rhapsody is that while both films openly utilise the Hollywood handbook of overused tropes, Green Book has at least fleshed out the characters in a way that when these moments happen, the reactions of the characters are justified and serve the overall story rather than simply going through the motions.
The story of Green Book is simple enough; internationally renowned black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is undertaking a concert throughout the Deep South in 1962 and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian American bouncer hired to drive him during his tour who has gained a name for himself as a fella who gets things done and will bullshit if he needs to. It’s understandable why this true story has been adapted to the big screen; road trip movies with unlikely and mismatched characters have always been a fun genre and the racial undertones of the time allow the film to explore some (obviously Oscar baiting) but nonetheless profound and important themes. The initial portrayal of the two men is handled well; Shirley is as refined, well spoken and worldly as Vallelonga is brash, rough and crude. Which in itself is a welcome transgression from the usual portrayal of the down on his luck black character needing the charity of white characters to overcome adversity (The Blind Side, The Intouchables).
The progression of the film is predictable enough, it is evident that the two men won’t initially get along and by the end of the film will have become inseparable. However the way in which the friendship develops throughout the film is so well handled and organic that by the end of the concert tour, the fact that Doc arrives unannounced for Tony’s Christmas dinner brought a happy tear to my eye rather than a cringe. Both performances are excellent throughout, particularly Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Vallelonga which is endearing and avoids becoming satirical. The establishment of relationships and friendships don’t come from immediate and blatant discussions of race and poverty, they arise from the smaller moments and the film recognises that. There are some genuinely moving instances regarding Shirley’s presence in the racially divided Deep South, particularly when Tony accuses Shirley of not knowing his own people and Shirley responds by saying that he has been exiled from them too because of what he does and how he lives. “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough then what am I Tony?” There is no shortage of the examples of racism Don Shirley faced during his tour, notably being invited as the guest of honour to perform but being refused to eat at the establishment’s restaurant or use the bathroom. You can see the pain and humiliation in Shirley’s eyes, and Ali plays his struggle between anger and dignity with subtlety.
The relationship between the two men is authentic and allows for both moments that are fun to watch and others that are, while predictable, properly touching. Green Book knows that its source material is provocative, and while the plot of the film progresses more or less as you would expect it to, the two leads bring warmth and humanity to what was ultimately a beautiful friendship. And I left the cinema happier having seen it.
By Jock Lehman