Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5

7 thoughts on “Green Book (2018)

  1. One I want to catch up with- funnily enough though I keep getting it mixed up with Green Room and Green Door, all very different movies I suspect. Its a shame about that anti-Netflix push to get this voted Best Picture. While many see Netflix as the BIg Evil in Hollywood, I suspect many Academy members and other actors less famous are getting plenty of work out of the streaming giant at the moment. Looking down their noses at it and trumpeting the loud nonsense that goes for films at the cineplex these days seems a bit disingenuous really.

    Mind, I have zero interest in Oscar these days, it’s just ego-massaging greed and politics and wrapping it up in this Films are Art and we don’t do it for the Fame or Money bullshit has worn me down. Even as film lover, its utterly irrelevant to me. Might have been nice to see Netflix shake some egos up though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • From the sounds of things it is, once again, the old guard who are the barrier. It’s surely only a matter of time until Netflix wins, as much as anything because they’re increasingly the main people who’ll fund Oscar-type movies. They’re an inevitable part of the future of cinema.

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Spielberg’s plan to take direct action against them. I don’t agree with him completely on this, but I do think Oscar needs to modify/clarify its rules on what counts as a movie for their awards. It might also stop this practice of releasing a movie for a week in certain cities in December to get an Oscar nom, but not releasing it properly until January/February/March — that’s always felt like cheating to me.


  2. I found this the most entertaining film I’ve seen in the cinema so far in 2019, and by some distance.

    I think it’s basically a feelgood movie, one of those dramas with a heart that Hollywood used to make quite effortlessly, and then managed to lose the knack.
    I wouldn’t knock it for not being a searing and, ultimately depressing, critique of the ills of society. Had it been, i think in many ways it would have been a lesser movie, a less engaging piece of work.

    The point is, I don’t believe that it ever sat out to do that, so doesn’t deserve to be hauled over the coals for not achieving something it never wanted to.For me, the movie is about two men from very different backgrounds coming to an understanding of each other and themselves, overcoming certain personal preconceptions.

    it’s a small, personal story set against a broader social backdrop, but the personal story is what it’s all really about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t fundamentally disagree with any of that. I think it’s attracted so much criticism because it’s been elevated to the status of “one of the best movies of the year” at awards where “best” is often understood to mean “most artistic/groundbreaking/etc”. (Whether awards season does actually seek to reward films for being that is another debate!) As just a film in itself, I think its aims are fine and achieved, but as a work of art being held up as the best of what cinema can achieve in 2018, I do understand the criticisms.


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