Green Book review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The most infamous and hilarious scene of Green Book, at least according to the boomer audience that gravitates towards such soapy pictures, features fried chicken. The cocky white driver and the rigid black passenger in the back seat dine on this lunch from a bucket. The black man remarks he’s not familiar with eating fried chicken and is informed by the white man that you eat it with your hands and toss the bones out the window. In order for this scene to be funny, however, the black man would have to be from another dimension and not the south.
The passenger is Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a pianist on a concert tour. Of course, being a black pianist during the 1960s is a tough road. Many places around the midwest banned black people from entering, noted in the green book. But this film is not about Shirley so much as it is about his driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is a racist bouncer with a brash attitude that clashes with Don’s more strict and tight-lipped professionalism. Squint long enough and their pairing on this cross-country music tour will seem more like a buddy comedy and less like a white savior movie.
Green Book is a very tempting kind of white savior movie with the conflicting direction of comedy director Peter Farrelly. The chemistry between Don and Tony is staged to place them more as an odd couple; Tony is filthy while Don is clean. In doing so, however, Peter’s film slides far too uncomfortably into the fluffy narrative of the white savior. Issues of racism and even the interesting angle of the green book itself are glazed over for all the familiar beats. A bunch of racist white guys will try to harass Don for poking his head where he doesn’t belong. But, look, here comes Tony to save the day. Maybe Tony isn’t such a racist after all. Maybe he and Don can be friends. Maybe racism can be solved in the 1960s.
It’s easy enough to see why many older white audiences favor such a film. It never takes a hard look at the racism of this time and instead weaves a microcosm of solving one of issue of a black and white guy getting along. The whole story is staged to be sweet and nostalgic with a sincere appeal to buddies conquering their racial divide. It’s also bereft of insight, warping just enough of the true story to never be uncomfortable for the white crowd and the dishonest to the family of Don who has denounced the film.
I can’t deny that I enjoyed the performances of Mahershala and Viggo who undeniably have chemistry. But to what end is their buddy comedy serving? What does such a picture offer that numerous other white savior pictures haven’t already delivered before? The Seth Meyers segment from his talk show that directly parodies white savior movies is so on the nose it's amazing how many of these films continue to pollute that market of historical drama. This is a film that talks about racism but never REALLY talks about racism. How else can we laugh at this comedy?
This is why it’s so hard to just switch off the brain and accept Green Book as the comedy so many aged moviegoers adore so well. It’s built so stock to appeal to this crowd of racism-ignoring white people that it was safe enough to be both nominated and win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Compared with the more visceral racial picture of Spike Lee’s BlackKKklansman also being nominated, Green Book is woefully behind the times and yet giving the edgy white audience exactly what they want; an easy to digest picture where we never have to think more about the story with the exception of the funny scene where the guys eat chicken. The film is perhaps is best summed up in a Saturday Night Live bit where a talk show host says to a faux Mahershala that he had issues with the ending of fried chicken. Mahershala corrects him that the scene was not the end of the movie. “Well, it was for me.”