It’s hard to put into words, the political climate that exists today. There is an air of anger and fear that permeates it all, sure. But to say just that is not saying enough. There is a tension that pervades today’s culture and many times that tension is weighed down by race relations. Since the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 America has been in a bit of a free fall. Police brutality in the news, protests in the streets, white nationalists in Charleston. It’s as if we have forgotten the trials we endured in the past.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was a travel guide that Black families took with them on road trips in the time when Jim Crow reigned supreme. It gave them a clear map of the places they would be allowed to stay, get fuel, eat, and stop to rest. It was a Black family’s Virgil, as they braved the depths of the Hell.
Peter Farrelly’s Green Book arrives at a time when, though we may wish this weren’t the case, America needs to remember its past. The Dumb and Dumber and Heartbreak Kid director, known primarily for his work in comedy comes to this project with reverence and precision. Green Book is the story of Tony Vallelonga and Dr. Donald Shirley. Shirley, played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, Moonlight) is a piano virtuoso on a tour through the Deep South. Vallelonga (or Tony Lip), played by Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings acclaim, Dr. Shirley’s driver.
Vallelonga is a man with rough edges and a sharp tongue. Formerly a bouncer at the Copacabana, he is no stranger to a scuffle. But he has character. He loves his wife (Linda Cardellini, Scooby-Doo) and kids more than anything in the world. Dr. Shirley is a talented recluse, living silently, by himself, above Carnegie Hall. On the road the two butt heads, each of them being from wildly separate worlds. Yet, as the trip continues, as Tony witnesses the ways that Dr. Shirley is treated by the southern white population, and as Dr. Shirley begins to unpack the man he hired as driver, the two form an iron bond.
There are things in this film that surprised the crowd. Epithets spoken, treatment shown, that should not have taken as many off guard, I feel. The film takes place in 1962, a full year before Dr. King’s March on Washington. It felt as if the people around me were surprised to see a world where Black people are treated in the way that Dr. Shirley is. It is for this reason that Green Book’s release could not be better timed. It is a kind of reminder, a warning you could say, that America was once far more divided than it is now. A lesson to people young and old, that we have fought these battles before. A call to action for others, that we can not let ourselves fall to this level of hatred again.
The film’s PG-13 rating is a bit of a double edged sword, however. At once it allows a much broader audience into the theater, while in the same breath perhaps makes lighter of the issues brought forward than it should. There are tense moments in Green Book but they never pull the viewer too deeply into a dramatic place. Often those moments are made shorter than the story deserves. An altercation with the police in a sundown town, for instance, passes in moments. Moments that could have held real dramatic weight if given more opportunity to breathe. More time to allow the scenes actors to play their character’s hand a few more turns.
In the end, Green Book is an inspired film with an amazingly uplifting and heartfelt message. Lead writer, and son of the real Tony Vallelonga, Nick Vallelonga put a lot of love into this screenplay and you can feel it in every minute. The dialogue is good, the pacing is snappy, and the moments that are supposed to hit hard land their punches (for the most part). I’m not quite sure Green Bookis Oscar worthy, I would need a few more viewings to decide that, but it is up there for one of the most important movies of 2018. Easily. | Caleb Sawyer