Thursday, February 21, 2019

Green Book – Racism: Solved?

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.

Green Book (2018) – directed by Peter Farrelly; written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the main character) based on his father’s letters and tape recordings and an interview with the other main character; shot by Sean Porter; edited by Patrick J. Don Vito; and with music by Kris Bowers – is a tonal, cinematographic, acting, and musical achievement, and a thematic disaster. It's based on the true story of Italian Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) driving Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to performances of his musical trio through the Deep South in 1962 by relying on Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a guide to the spaces and hours that are safe for a black person to be at. The film features an entirely conventional and by-the-numbers mismatched-buddies road-movie plot that’s revitalized by the two leads’ performances. Mortensen plays Vallelonga as the trashiest kind-hearted Italian man in the Bronx, while Ali’s Shirley is the epitome of tortured dignity and class. But the writing navigates deliberately into a racial minefield, careful to step on every single mine it can find.

Look, Tony’s a good guy. He might not be the most refined (or literate) person in the world, but he has a moral compass: he refuses to work for the mob and hesitates before, compelled by racial hierarchy, he tosses out water cups used by black repairmen. He and some of his male extended family use racial slurs without batting an eye, but never in front of the people they’re referring to. He gets offended on Don’s behalf whenever he’s discriminated against. His wife Dolores looks like Linda Cardellini, for Chrissakes, so how bad could he be, right?

If the above paragraph implies a blinkered take on racial morals, to say the least, this is pretty much exactly the moral worldview of the film. When Don objects to Tony's associating him with fried chicken, he replies, “Hey, if you said I eat pizza and pasta every day, I wouldn’t mind.” The film’s understanding of racial tolerance couldn’t be clearer: separate but equal, each sticking to their own culture and people without offending other cultures or peoples through discriminatory actions. Richard Brody calls this colorblindness, but that’s not quite right; each culture is recognized for its differences, is even poked fun at for them. It does matter what color your skin is.

What the film does is less idiotic, more insidious: it erases historical and institutional legacies of racism. As Rat Film (2016) showed with powerful immediacy, past racist policies and social institutions have lasting effects after they’re discarded, passed down through the twin legacies of family and community inheritance. All people are created equal in the eyes of the law, but that doesn’t mean all people start out in life equally. That’s the whole premise behind affirmative action, minority housing subsidies, and other reparative policies. Not recognizing this fact is why Mortensen felt that it was acceptable to utter the “n” word during a post-screening Q&A while explaining America’s changing racial attitudes. He was using it objectively with no malicious intent (arguably even with benign intent), but the word itself carries a hateful history, which taints his and anyone’s choice to say it when it can be at all avoided. (The main exceptions are fictional contexts in character.) Green Book fails to even acknowledge racism at a historical and societal level, making its concluding racial reconciliation ring false.

It fails to reckon with racism at an individual level, too. When Tony, noting Don’s ignorance of popular black musical icons, says to him, “I’m blacker than you are,” Don doesn’t respond with a recounting of how his skin color has shaped his life experience (the basis of K. Austin Collins’s case against the film, and only mentioned once in the film when Don notes that he has faced discrimination throughout his life). Instead, he concedes the point by melodramatically exiting the car into the pouring rain and baring his soul to Tony: “If I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, and I’m not man enough, then tell me – what am I?!” (Don is also gay, and the film's treatment of this fact opens up another can of worms entirely.) It’s micro-level indignities like this that have critics like Odie Henderson all fired up.

That second paragraph above is also a good representation of the film’s general tone. Most everything in it is coated in a thick layer of humor, with only occasional moments of earnestness sprinkled in. I would wager that for any comedy that does not attempt to speak to identity politics, this would’ve been the perfect tone -- say a film about a crime boss with pangs of conscience or a ruthless billionaire and his (always “his”) newfound charity. But here, the jovial tone only further salts the wound of whitewashing black experience.

Nick Vallelonga maintains that every plot point actually happened, but that just means it was mentioned in Tony's letters and recordings, made by a man who took pride in being a master bullshit artist, whence his nickname "Lip." Filmmakers have altered the confirmed historical record for lesser reasons than political correctness, as the debate over Selma (2014) covered extensively. And the Shirley family has contested the inaccuracies in major aspects of the film, including the idea that Don considered Tony a friend, and chastised the filmmakers for not consulting them, so accuracy is a moot point. In fact, it's not unreasonable to assume that the film was made precisely because it could use the scenes discussed above, and more like them, to resonate with viewers' sense of racial tolerance. That it has won awards and nominations is a damning verdict on white liberal culture in general.

A final technical note: there are a few obvious continuity breaks, and in Don’s first performance the image and sound seem to be mismatched by the tiniest bit (sound editing by Martin Lopez). That may seem petty, but I usually don’t notice these things, so you can bet that others noticed them too.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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