Twenty-nine years after Driving Miss Daisy unconscionably secured the Academy Award for Best Picture, Green Book, a movie informally dubbed the reverse Driving Miss Daisy, took home the same prize at the 2018 Academy Awards. Studios won’t halt production on the Green Books of the world until movies like it are no longer profitable and well received, but the Academy should stop rewarding them. Green Book is entertaining, innocuous (on its surface), and feel-good for the right viewer, but the context surrounding it and the subtext that can be garnered from it change the conversation.
Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly, Green Book is the story of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (the father of co-writer Nick Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen), a white club bouncer, as he struggles to find employment in New York City in 1962. Before long, black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) contacts Tony about an opportunity. Don and his accompaniment, the Don Shirley Trio, are headed on tour in the American South, and Don needs a driver and bodyguard for the trip. Tony and Don have an antagonistic relationship until the dangers and discomforts of a black man traveling in the South force them together.
Green Book saw release amid controversies surrounding Farrelly (who also served as director) and Nick Vallelonga. The Cut unearthed an interview Farrelly conducted with Newsweek 20 years ago where the director admitted to flashing his penis as a joke “easily 500 times” on the set of There’s Something About Mary. A Vallelonga tweet about Muslims celebrating on 9/11 also resurfaced after the film’s release. While art cannot be judged solely on the blunders and misdeeds of its creators, it is inseparable from them.
Mortenson and Ali, along with a few scenes from Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores, carry the movie. Outside of Hidalgo (2004), The Road (2009), and Captain Fantastic (2016), Mortensen has largely been out of the spotlight since wrapping The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Green Book is an imperfect vessel to rejuvenate Mortensen’s career, though I won’t scoff at it for bringing Aragorn back. Ali remains one of the finest working actors, even if his portrayal of Don Shirley was inauthentic, according to Shirley’s own family.
Don Shirley’s brother, Maurice Shirley, had this to say about the film in a letter to Black Enterprise, “My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend’; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.” According to Maurice Shirley, the film also falsifies an estrangement between the brothers. Don, living in a lonely palace above Carnegie Hall, is presented as a king without a kingdom. He is unfriendly toward his family and a stranger to black culture. It is this dynamic that allows Tony to fulfill the white savior complex.
Green Book is named for The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook for black people traveling through the segregated South. Although the film borrows its name from the book, the characters only riffle through its pages a handful of times. Green Book is not about the guidebook; instead, the guidebook is merely a symbol for Tony’s journey. As Tony and Don prepare to embark, Tony is handed a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book; he turns it over in his hand, examining it like an artifact from a distant culture. Throughout the trip, Tony begins to understand why the book is necessary. He gets it. Only, he doesn’t get it. Tony, who is introduced to audiences as a racist, can empathize with Don’s torment and persecution at the hands of other white people, but he can never experience the hardship first-hand. Green Book’s greatest sin is perpetuating the myth that a single interracial friendship–whether it happened or not–can mark the end of racism.