Thursday, February 7, 2019

THE ROAD BETWEEN US: a review of "Green Book"

Screenplay Written by Nick Vallelonga & Brian Hayes Currie & Peter Farrelly
Directed by Peter Farrelly
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

I have to admit to you that I was apprehensive about seeing this one.

In 2018, an exceptional year that showcased differing styles and genres of Black filmmaking excellence, from titles as varied as Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman," Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther," Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" among others, I just was not certain if I really had it in me to see what was kinda, sorta looking like yet another race themed drama with a White protagonist in the leading role serving as some sort of savior figure to the noble yet perpetually helpless Black person...i.e. akin to what we have already seen in purportedly well meaning films like Tate Taylor's "The Help" (2011) and definitely, John Lee Hancock's "Me And My Pet Negro"...oops, I mean, "The Blind Side" (2009). 

And yet, I did indeed venture to my theater to finally regard Peter Farrelly's critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated "Green Book," a film whose trailer certainly did seem to possibly evoke the very kind of film that I had been fearing to see. While the end result is indeed one designed to attain more of a commercial, mass appeal film-going experience, I was indeed extremely surprised and  undeniably moved by what Farrelly achieved...especially as I never thought that one half of the Writing /Directing team of the likes of "Dumb And  Dumber" (1994), "Kingpin" (1996), and "There's Something About Mary" (1998) even remotely had something this nuanced, thoughtful and hopeful in him.

Set in 1962, "Green Book" stars an excellent Viggo Mortensen as Tony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga, an Italian-American New York City nightclub bouncer searching for new job opportunities after the establishment at which he is employed is closed down for renovations.

Tony is soon invited to meet Dr. Don Shirley (a wondrous Mahershala Ali), an African-American classical pianist, housed in a lavish abode directly above Carnegie Hall, who offers Tony employment as  his personal driver through the Midwest and deep South for an eight week concert tour, with plans to return to New York City by Christmas Eve. After some hesitation, due to his own racist prejudices, Tony accepts the job and is given a copy of author Victor Hugo Green's The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook for Black motorists displaying the locations of motels and restaurants that will provide service.

On their shared journey, Tony and Dr. Shirley clash with each other as Tony is intimidated and irritated by Dr. Shirley's affluence and refinement and in turn, Dr. Shirley is disturbed by Tony's coarseness, crass manners, and propensity for violence. And unquestionably for both men, racial stereotypes, prejudices and self-perceptions prove to be the most difficult road map to navigate as their experiences tentatively, gradually, hopefully deliver a greater understanding and respect of each other as well as themselves.

On the surface, Peter Farrelly's "Green Book" may indeed exist as precisely the kind of racial harmony crowd pleaser that I loathe. The kind of disingenuous race relations movie that only exists to make White liberals feel great about themselves for proclaiming themselves to being liberal. At its worst, the film could have been nothing more than Bruce Beresford's Best Picture Oscar winner "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) in reverse...and in the year of both "Black Panther" and undeniably, "BlacKKKlansman," a film like that would be inexcusable!

Thankfully, not only did Peter Farrelly seem to understand the potential obstacles for a film such as this one, I think he even cleverly played into and then upended the "Driving Miss Daily" comparisons and conceits by ensuring the truth of the characters' humanity remained at the forefront, regardless of the film's lighter tonality. In essence, I think that Farrelly knows his strengths and understands that he is not the Spike Lee kind of filmmaker and storyteller, so to speak. Yet that being said, I do believe that he played directly towards his own considerable filmmaking and storytelling strengths, and in the process, revealed a greater nuance and depth that I, and I would assume you as well, never knew that he possessed.

As you look back at the filmography of Peter Farrelly and his brother Bobby Farrelly, in addition to creating over the top, audaciously vulgar hard R rated comedies, each of their films did indeed feel to champion some sort of outsider figure be it a sad sack one-handed bowler and an ingenue Amish man in the aforementioned "Kingpin," a state trooper afflicted with personality disorder in "Me, Myself & Irene" (2000), and even conjoined twins in "Stuck On You" (2003), for instance.

For "Green Book," Peter Farrelly has turned towards that similar attention towards those subjected to the societal sidelines in an obviously more dramatic, and therefore, socio-political fashion as the issues of race, racism, identity politics and the prejudices we hold are indeed the engine driving this film as our two main protagonists drive throughout the deep South.

Essentially, Farrelly has fashioned a film that could work as a companion traveling piece to both John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987) and Alexander Payne's "Sideways" (2004), two superior road movies that served a comedy of manners surrounded by darker themed character studies of men all reaching personal crossroads. For "Green Book," his attention to story, character, and period detail are all entirely on point but where the film finds its power is through Farrelly's exceedingly difficult navigation of, again, the proper tone where comedic elements do not diffuse the inherent drama and overall honesty of the piece or that the drama does not grow to be too heavy for the comedy to be unsustainable.

And yet, there is the very rightful questioning and even criticism towards the film that the lightness of its tone trivializes the subject matter and the real people and situations upon which this film has been based and inspired by. A healthy debate about this very issue is necessary without question and it was, in part, the cause of my trepidation for even seeing the movie in the first place. On the other hand, not every film can be "BlacKKKlansman," and not very film needs to be or even should be, for there are many roads up the same mountain and different people can be reached with the same message presented in different ways. To that end, there is a delicate balance at work to remain honest to the characters, their emotions and the environment and time period in which they all exist when creating a film experience designed for mass audiences. Now that I have seen the film, I can say for my sense and sensibilities, Peter Farrelly's "Green Book" accomplished its goals handsomely because, regardless of the tone, the film felt true.

Yes, "Green Book" contains more than its share of character driven humor in the vein of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple (1965), two mismatched individuals thrown together irritating each other tremendously yet tentatively learning from and about each other, eventually building towards a greater understanding. Farrelly has great fun playing Dr. Shirley's highly educated polish off of Tony's working class roughness. But all the while, he never loses sight of that racial component that fuels precisely who and why they are who they are. Unlike a film like "The Help," I deeply appreciated how Peter Farrelly did not feel afraid of his subject matter as he remained resolute with presenting a film that is about racism, therefore not shying away from the ugliness, the very images and feelings that should make us all feel dangerously uncomfortable.

I think of an early scene in the film when Tony's wife Dolores (a warm Linda Cardellini) is present when two Black repairmen are working in their home. Not only are several of Tony and Dolores' extended family members also on-site, presumably to deter those sexually voracious Black men from potentially raping Dolores, Farrelly even further has Tony take the two glasses that both Black men have used to drink the water that Dolores has graciously given, and tossed them into the kitchen garbage can--for why would, and how could his pure White lips touch the same glasses that have been "contaminated" by the lips of Black people.

In this brief scene, Farrelly demonstrated to me that he was ready and willing to deliver racism's painful sting, while also delivering the absurdity and possibly, the shame one may be able to feel once they see racism for its unrepentant cruelty, especially if it is how they themselves once housed the same Tony.

Of course, this brings us to what could be another debatable criticism concerning "Green Book," and that is of the White Savior/Magic Negro conceit, where the White character exists to save the helpless Black protagonist and conversely, the Black character is solely served as a plot device to aid the White protagonist, never existing as a three dimensional character at all. With t his film, a debate of this sort is necessary but again, I felt that Farrelly smartly overstepped those conceptual pitfalls, by ensuring both men were presented as realistic human beings.

For Tony, I felt that we were subjected to an exploration of a man's awakening, to his own racial prejudices, to the insidious nature of racism itself and his own sense of White privilege, as well as newfound understandings of loyalty, friendship, family, romance and communication. With regards to his attitudes towards race, Tony has spent his entire life inside of a community where racial epithets are bandied around carelessly, and attitudes towards anyone different are clearly born more from  ignorance than legitimate fear, completely suggesting that everything Tony has ever known in the only neighborhood and community he has ever known (and will most likely never leave), has exclusively been taught, handed down and accepted blindly. And so, with Tony Lip, we are experiencing one character isolated from everything outside of his very small window to the world.

Yes, Tony houses racist attitudes but is he definitely a racist? I would think that a full fledged racist would have immediately walked out of the door upon simply meeting Dr. Don Shirley, and he certainly would never have accepted employment that placed him in a position of servitude to a Black man.

Yet, he does accept and the further the film travels and the darker the film becomes as the two men extend deeper into the South, where issues of racism are more overt--including an unfortunate altercation with police during an unfortunate detour into a "Sundown Town" and a powerful sequence where the high society establishment at which Dr. Shirley is scheduled to perform refuses to seat him for dinner in their own restaurant--it does not take terribly much for Tony to take Dr. Shirley's side...yes first, it is because it is his job, but soon and crucially, it is because it is the human thing to do.

That being said, Tony is forced to confront his own prejudices in subtler ways, especially when he is a figure who claims to hate Black people while loving Black culture, which then fuels his stereotypes about Black people, all of which are torn apart by the existence of Dr. Don Shirley, who doesn't fit into any conceivable box Tony wishes to place him.

In all of the ways Tony appreciates Shirley's elegance--most notably in his coaching and re-writes of the love letters Tony sends home to Dolores (a very sweet touch)--Tony's own sense of inferiority rises its ugliest head when he challenges Shirley's "Blackness" regarding "Black" foods Shirley doesn't eat and the Black musicians he doesn't listen to. "I'm Blacker than YOU!!" he admonishes towards Dr. Shirley.

Think about this for a moment or two. To possess the audacity, arrogance, and misguided sense of privilege to feel righteous enough to define the existence of another person. Indeed during moments like this one in "Green Book," we are witness to Tony's own sense of White privilege as he inflicts it upon Dr. Don Shirley as well as an unveiling of his own dark insecurities about what kind of a human being he is to proclaim such knowledge over another he knows he knows NOTHING about.

As with every performance that I have witnessed from Viggo Mortensen, his work as Tony is rich, complete and one that exists only within the cinematic universe that surrounds him, ensuring that any past performances, and our memories of them, never creep into our "Green Book" viewing experience.

As terrific as Viggo Mortensen is, Mahershala Ali's performance as Dr. Don Shirley is mesmerizing in its depth, dignity, sorrow, pain, empathy and grace. Certainly this portrayal could have easily existed as nothing more than a persnickety caricature, an updated version of the cruel stereotype of the "uppity Negro." But no.

As we have already seen in films such as Justin Tipping's "Kicks" (2016) and his Oscar winning performance in Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" (2016), Ali has more than proven himself to being the caliber of actor to immerse himself into the full histories of his characters, regardless of how much screen time he owns. And in doing so, he completely upends all aspects of whatever stereotypes and prejudices viewers may house towards the characters he portrays. He opens his mouth, you regard his eyes and with a sublime immediacy, all you ultimately witness is the content of character, the power of soul.

With regards to the criticism of this character essentially serving no other purpose than to exist as the "Magic Negro," I vehemently disagree with that assessment as Mahershala Ali's performance is beautifully nuanced and multi-layered. For the role of the affluent, highly educated, eclectic, artistic, proud and dignified Dr. Don Shirley, Mahershala Ali is indeed presenting a form of superior Black excellence, a miracle unto itself considering the time period.

But, most importantly, Ali is also delivering a truly lived in, and often deeply painful character study of a soul in isolation as his wealth, talent, education, choice of music he performs, diction and elocution run in contrast to what both Blacks and Whites believe Black people are and can only exist as, a brutal quandary for countless people of color...including myself. In addition to race, there is also the aspect of Shirley's homosexuality, briefly presented in the film but a crucial characteristic that only serves to enhance his sense of disconnect from his own race, other races and sadly, even his own brother, from whom he is essentially estranged.

It woud be more than enough for Shirley to undergo a concert tour of high White society enduring a variety of forms of racism the entire way--including the reality of having to travel via Green Book in the first place--while still possessing the wherewithal to perform at the eight of his artistic powers and also maintaining a sense of dignity and integrity in a world that refuses to view him as human. But, there is always more to endure when one is a Black man in a White world, especially one like Dr. Don Shirley. And for that matter, there is always more to endure when existing as a Black man in a Black world, when the Black man in question  who nurses his pain with alcohol nightly.

With Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley, the journey of "Green Book" is literal, emotional and cerebral as the film simply presents the conceit of how much we could actually learn about each other if we just took the time to talk to each other, to sit and listen, to regard and to actually be honest with ourselves enough to admit to our own prejudices and when we do not understand something or someone who is foreign to ourselves, especially now as we are all so entrenched within our own societal camps 

I do realize that does sound more than a little naive. And I guess that it is. Additionally, the film does veer towards a bit of the formulaic and some elements of its road movie structure are a tad predictable. But, in all honesty, these are minor quibbles for a film this well intentioned and executed. Peter Farrelly's "Green Book" is a quietly powerful humanistic vision of possibility and wouldn't the possibilities that can occur when we value each other's differences while discovering the similarities between ourselves in the process make for a better world?


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