Green Book: Navigating Civil Rights

After the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War, there was a short period of time, during Reconstruction, when many former slaves voted and even held a political office. This was a short period of unprecedented political power for humans who, just a few years earlier, were subject to the horrors of slavery. Over time, however, the rights of African Americans and their descendants were slowly eroded away, especially in the former Confederacy, by Jim Crow laws and the fallacy of “separate but equal.” This legalized, purely racial subjugation of African Americans in the south carried on for nearly a century. The white establishment in the south kept themselves in power with threats, discriminatory laws, and even violence.

All these decades of tension and racial strife seemed to come to a head in the 1960s, during the administrations of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. During the decade, there were numerous grassroots movements opposing the social order of the south in order to “de-institutionalize” segregation and racial policies. The most famous of these movements were the ones led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in various places throughout the south.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the racial problems, at least in the law’s eyes in the country, were put to bed. While the Acts are by no means a perfect solution, they remain the most comprehensive Civil Rights legislation passed to date. But it’d be ignorant to say that the scars left on this nation from our racist past are close to healing. Still permeating this topic of race in this country are discussions of the same ideas that were fought over in the Civil War. The struggle continues for millions in this country as they face abject poverty and racism, both intentional or otherwise, and I wish it would end.

This week’s film, Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly, takes us inside the racial struggles in the south of the early 1960s, with an unusual look at the struggle as perceived by one man, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson). The film, a true story and the winner of the 91st Academy Award for Best Picture in 2019, is certainly not perfect, and it dabbles dangerously into the same territory as other films about race that are just stereotypes wrapped with a pretty bow. However, in these extraordinarily divided times, the film is a small glimpse of hope into a period of American history when we were also very divided as a nation.

Now, for the rest of the film.

Plot/Writing

The film opens in New York’s Copacabana Club where Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga works as a bouncer. The opening scene shows Tony excelling at his job, with no qualms about throwing anybody out of one of New York’s finest clubs. Tony, though, soon finds himself out of work with the club closing over the holidays for renovations. Tony, whose family struggles enough when he is working, finds himself in dire straights. He does a serious of odd jobs before an offer from a mysterious “Dr. Shirley” falls in his lap.

When he meets Dr. Don Shirley, Tony, a gruff, blue-blooded New Yorker, is immediately skeptical. Dr. Shirley, a black pianist, wants Tony to drive him around the country for a few months while Shirley is touring with two other musicians. Tony initially refuses the job on the spot from the pianist, but Dr. Shirley offers him the job anyway.

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Inevitably, the tour doesn’t start well for the two men. Tony sticks out like a sore thumb against Dr. Shirley’s refined grace. The two bicker about everything, from fried chicken to popular culture.

Eventually, though, the two men learn to trust and lean on each other, particularly when the tour heads to the southern US. By the end of the film, Tony and Dr. Shirley have impacted each other, with Tony becoming aware of his overt racism and the struggles for persons of color and Dr. Shirley learning to appreciate a life that is not as refined as the one he’d like. Not to mention, the two literally save each other throughout the movie.

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Written by Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), Peter Farrelly, and Brian Hayes Currie, the movie did win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In the beginning, the film’s attitude is light and airy, but as the movie wears on, and Dr. Shirley’s performances take place deeper and deeper into the South, the movie descends into vivid darkness. Throughout the movie, though, the characters have no problem being brutally honest with each other.

The script for Green Book is subtle and is one that allows the audience to organically discover the hidden complexities of each character as the movie wears on. It doesn’t come right out and say it. For that, I am thankful. 1. 1.

Sound

From the start, I got the feeling that the sound and music in Green Book was going to be something special. This is evident in the opening scene in the Copacabana Club. The scene’s chaos is portrayed by a frenzied jazz concert on stage. This set me up with the expectation that this was going to be a loud and sometimes bombastic movie.

I was both right and wrong, and that’s okay. At times, the movie is a love letter to 1960s pop culture and at others, it’s an ode to an appreciation of classical music. Dr. Shirley is a classical pianist, after all. The combination of these two contrasting elements of music made for a great watching experience.

The score, which does not stand out, was composed by Kris Bowers. But the fact that it doesn’t pop out to me is okay. This movie isn’t about Bowers’s score. 1.

Set Design

When we consume movies, we have to suspend reality. This means that we have to allow our brains to excuse us from 2020 and place us in Green Book‘s world of 1962. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the design of the set.

I can’t recall a movie when I sunk into a story almost instantly as I did with Green Book. The biggest reason for this is that the set is so immaculately detailed and alive that I couldn’t help but be transported into 1962 New York right away. This is the most “lived in” set I’ve seen.

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I’ve always believed that Mad Men was the standard of excellence when it comes to modern-day depictions of life in the 1960s, and in some ways, that’s still true. But you can put Green Book right up there as a Grade A piece of historical fiction and it’s all thanks to the set design. 1.

Cinematography

Sean Porter was the Director of Photography for Green Book. He was not nominated for Best Cinematography for this film.

When I rediscovered my love for photography a few years ago, I quickly learned that bold, clear subjects with very obscured backgrounds were what I preferred to show off. Therefore, I’ve tried to get closer to subjects so as to show off the details. The obscured background helps the subject to “pop” out of the photo.

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Knowing this, one can imagine my joy when I realized that Porter shot Green Book the same way. The close-ups of Dr. Shirley and Tony are all show with a blurry background, helping those characters stand out against the world they’re in.

Additionally, the movie is an ode to camera movement. The scenes are always in motion, be it literally motion, like when Tony is driving, or motion to add dynamics to the scene. Porter utilizes motion to perfection in this movie, and I loved it. 1.

Acting

Viggo Mortensen played Tony Vallelonga, a brash, unapologetic New Yorker. The most striking thing about Mortensen’s portrayal of Tony was his appearance. For this role, Mortensen gained about fifty pounds and he was nominated for Best Actor for this role, but he did not win.

Mortensen’s portrayal of this character was much more than physical. He helped to sell this movie. I had to constantly remind myself that he is literally the same man who played Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Mortensen’s transformation is total and he captures every bit of Tony’s personality in this role. This shows his incredible versatility as an actor.

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Tony Lip makes no bones about showing you who is he right upfront. He’s loyal to his family and he loves what he does. He can’t imagine a better life for himself because he already lives it. But he also has a dark side. He is overtly racist, but he’s racist in a parlor room type of way, rather than an exclusionary way. He thrives on stereotypes and accepts people for who they are, rather than actively denying people based on the color of their skin. For the record, both forms of racism are bad, but they are different.

Mahershala Ali is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, and his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley cemented his legacy in my mind. The last time we saw him was in Moonlight in 2016, and he demonstrated all the nuances of being a top-tier actor in that film.

Ali is back here with another great performance as Dr. Shirley. He evokes class and dignity from the start, even though he literally sits on a throne when he and Tony initially meet. Ali had to make no significant physical transformations for this role, but he too plays the part to perfection. In fact, Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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Over time, we learn that Dr. Shirley is a troubled man who is fighting hard to overcome his past life of abject poverty and discrimination. There’s one scene in the movie when he tells Tony that he can’t play the classical pieces he loves because it’s not expected of him based on the color of his skin. He’s forced to play jazz in order to make a living, which is a role he resents.

There are few movies on this list where the story centers around the dynamics of two characters. Those that do, though, include Million Dollar Baby, Gone with the Wind, and The King’s Speech. All three of those were great movies and Mortensen and Ali deserve to be in the same room as those three movies. 1.

Directing

It’s rare that I’ll get to talk about Dumb and Dumber in this blog about Best Picture winners, and yet here I am. For the record, Dumb and Dumber is one of my favorite comedies. But it’s hard to believe that Peter Farrelly could have directed both Dumb and Dumber and Green Book, but he did. The shift in content and tone is considerable.

Farrelly was not nominated for Best Director for this movie, most likely due to his past movies. I cannot blame him for this, I can only judge him for the movie in front of me. Just one more note about Farrelly’s history of doing comedies: Green Book does have some overtly funny moments, but Farrelly gives them to us in a “high-brow” kind of way, rather than slapstick like some of his other films.

For all that I loved about Green Book, it is not without its problems, and numerous other reviewers have felt the same way. A racially-charged movie in politically divided times is certain to draw a fair number of naysayers, which is more than understandable.

The first issue is the historical accuracy of the movie. I’ve always believed that, when it comes to period pieces, the director’s primary problem is how to present an entertaining and poignant story in a way that’s as historically accurate as possible. This is a considerable challenge that many directors have failed while very few have succeeded. Some members of Don Shirley’s family have disputed some of the events in the film. However, some interviews from both Tony Vallelonga and Dr. Shirley have corroborated events in the movie. Additionally, Nick Vallelonga did not discuss the screenplay with Dr. Shirley’s family while he was writing it. However, he told Variety that he discussed the script with Dr. Shirley before his 2013 death and Dr. Shirley approved of what he had written.

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A second issue has been comparisons to 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, which I will hotly detest. Green Book is much more complex than Driving Miss Daisy could ever hope to be. Driving Miss Daisy only puts lipstick on the racism pig.

In fairness, the most basic idea of Green Book is the same, only the roles are reversed. But again, Green Book succeeds in all the ways where Driving Miss Daisy fails. But a straight, across-the-board comparison between the two movies will make my blood boil.

Finally, there are overarching ideas of race in this movie. Naturally, this is a very complex issue, and there are a number of different perspectives on this across the spectrum. On the one hand, Wesley Morris of The New York Times called the movie a “racial reconciliation fantasy.” This goes along with the idea of the white savior trope in film. There are many who see the white savior trope as an advancement of the Hollywood idea that there are good white people out there and further the idea of what Morris described. Additionally, there have been a number of Best Picture films that have won or been nominated with this trope in mind. Some examples of films that I love are Dances with Wolves and 12 Years a Slave.

In Christy Lemire’s review of Green Book for Roger Ebert, she states that the movie is not free of “icky white savior moments” and this certainly true. However, Lemire goes on to argue that there are several instances of Dr. Shirley saving Tony from trouble, too. I could even go so far as arguing that because Dr. Shirley hired Tony, it helped him out of a financially dire situation. This trope and idea is there, though, and Farrelly knew it when he was working on the picture. He stated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that he worked with the actors and producers to make sure that he eliminated this trope. It does have it’s moments, but I don’t think it’s as bad as what some folks believe. I agree with Kareen Abdul-Jabaar’s review of the movie for The Hollywood Reporter where he states that “filmmakers are history’s interpreters, not its chroniclers.”

In the end, though, I think that the depiction of race, or the response to it, is not the point of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a heavy underlying theme. In my opinion, racism adds yet another layer to a complex movie.

As Lemire points out in her review, the movie is somewhat formulaic and that we know how the interactions between these two men will end before we even get there. However, it’s the journey that counts in Green Book. This movie, like many others, is one about people and identity in a diverse and sometimes confusing world. The real joy in Green Book is the story of the men who become friends. That’s the heart of it. Farrelly said so himself, stating the film is “about two guys who were complete opposites and found a common ground, and it’s not one guy saving the other. It’s both saving each other and pulling each other into some place where they could bond and form a lifetime friendship.”

The relationship between the mismatched companions is what drives the movie forward and that’s why the movie sticks around in my head. Sure, the film may not be perfect, and it may not have been the best film in the host of movies nominated for Best Picture, but I’m not unhappy with the choice. It’s important to remember, though, that a movie like this is an easy choice for an Academy that’s under fire for its treatment of minorities and women to make. Many people were unhappy with Green Book winning the Oscar over other movies like Roma and Black Panther. I cannot, however, blame Farrelly for this. 1.

Bonus Points

I’m giving an extra point to Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali.

Final Score: 9/10

Oscar Facts

Green Book won the 91st Academy Award for Best Picture on February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Black Panther, BlacKKKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star is Born, and Vice for Best Picture. The award was presented by Julia Roberts and accepted by producers Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga. In total, Green Book won three awards out of five nominations.

Other winners that night include Alfonso Cuaron winning Best Director, Rami Malek winning Best Actor, Olivia Coleman winning Best Actress, and Regina Kinwinning Best Supporting Actress. The ceremony, which didn’t have a host, was one of the lowest-rated Oscars in history.

Next Week

Next week I’ll jump back into our exploration of Vicente Minnelli and his 1958 winner Gigi. After that, it’s Out of Africa, Ordinary People, Oliver!, Tom Jones, and All the King’s Men.

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