NICK EICHER, HOST: Next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham’s review of the new movie Green Book.
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: One of the most depressing hallmarks of our time is a growing tendency to read the worst motives into any public statements, including films, on thorny subjects like race. We seem increasingly unwilling to give each other the benefit of any doubt.
Some of the critical reactions to a crowd-pleasing new movie, Green Book, are a perfect illustration of this trend. The film tells the true-ish story of an upper-class black pianist finding a unique friendship with an initially-bigoted, blue-collar Italian bruiser during a road-trip through the segregation-era South. Some argue it’s a way for American audiences to pat themselves on the back for “solving racism.” Others complain that by once-again revisiting the racial sins of our past the movie secretly intends to heap hate on our national character.
AUDIO: I’m about to embark on a concert tour in the deep south. Do you foresee any issues working for a black man? You? In the deep south? There are going to be issues.
That’s a lot of malicious intent to read into a funny movie that seems to have its heart in the right place.
Classically trained pianist Dr. Don Shirley hires nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga to drive him on a concert tour. They are both exaggerated types. The fascinating contrast at the center of the story is to what degree and for what reason each of them chooses to be.
Tony (played by Viggo Mortensen) wears clichés about being Italian as a badge of honor. His bada-boom, bada-bing colloquialisms help him blend seamlessly with mobbed-up guys in his neighborhood even as he uses his good-fella routine to graciously deflect their job offers. As he explains, if someone were to suggest “guineas” only eat pasta and pizza, he’d laugh and tell them he’s proud of it.
Dr. Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) on the other hand, strives to distance himself from caricatures ascribed to African-Americans.
AUDIO: Tell me that don’t smell good. I’ve never had fried chicken in my life. You people love the fried chicken. You have a very narrow assessment of me, Tony. Yeah, right? I’m good.
In overly-mannered, clipped tones, he informs Tony that he’s never tasted fried chicken and has never heard the music of Chubby Checker or Aretha Franklin. To excel in his field, he’s had to carve out a cultured persona so far from what prejudiced whites expect that he appears to live his entire life as a performance. This deprives him of real community both of those who look like him and those who don’t.
AUDIO: You don’t know your own people. You, Mr. Bigshot, doing concerts for rich people. So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, tell me, Tony, what am I?
Though Green Book would have done better to offer more nuanced, less moustache-twirling Southern bad guys, this feels more like a product of shorthand screenwriting than nefarious America-bashing. Similarly the film’s treatment of Shirley’s homosexuality seems based more in pitiable realism than in trying to equate racism with religious convictions about sexuality. A brief scene that implies Shirley had an anonymous encounter with a stranger in a YMCA shower hardly paints a positive picture of his emotional and spiritual health. Nor does his severe alcohol abuse. And though Tony comments that after working as a bouncer in New York clubs for 20 years, he’s not shocked, neither does he say anything affirming. He does, unfortunately, use plenty of profanity throughout the movie that pushes the bounds of its PG-13 rating.
In a scathing review, the New Yorker accused the film of offering a—gasp—optimistic vision of racial reconciliation. And this is one charge I’d say is true. Even toward the end of Green Book, after his heart has clearly changed, Tony says things that make us (and Dr. Shirley) cringe a bit. It makes a lovely point about giving one another some grace, as his will is clearly good. As is Dr. Shirley’s in finally letting Tony—with all his poor diction and appalling table manners—into his life.
AUDIO: So that little temper tantrum, was it worth it? Hmm? You never win with violence, Tony. You only win when you maintain your dignity. Dignity always prevails.
Green Book, while not flinching from the realities of its era, didn’t set out to be a serious, gut-wrenching tragedy. It set out to be an amusing, heartwarming tale about two real-life buddies from the past whose unlikely friendship casts a hopeful light on our future. There’s nothing wrong—and a lot right—with feeling good about that.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.