Film Review: Green Book (USA, 2018) is a film about racism told by white people, and it really shows

Do good intentions make a good film? That is the question that has popped up in my head through the many recent films over the past year. Whether the film is about the commentary on major issues like racism, sexism and discrimination, the film itself still has to be well-executed in all areas in order for it to work.

While leaning on an objective point of view, any news (whether from factors during the making of the film or from outside factors involving the cast/crew) that involves controversial/negative traits that render the good intentions in the film obsolete would also have to be negated out as once again, the film itself still has to be well-executed in all areas in order for it to work. But when is it right to be objective? Is it even possible to even be objective in criticism?

Case in point, 2018’s comedy/drama Green Book. Based on a true friendship (as the marketing shows), the film has been garnering polarizing reviews for its good intentions in its commentary on race and the acting between the two leads, but there are negative reviews due to its blatantly manufactured pathos, misguided views on race and tone-deaf screenwriting. Does the film end up being a heartwarming story that touches on race with sensitivity and provides a look into the human condition that is prescient of our present day?

Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation.

When the film was making its rounds around film festivals and the like, news reports came afoot in terms of its cast and crew and their actions that contradict the message of the film. Reports such as Viggo Mortensen saying the dreaded n-word during a Q&A and the co-writer Nick Vallelonga (who happens to the the son of Frank Vallelonga) posting racist remarks and showing support of 9/11 (with Mahershala Ali being a Muslim in real-life). Does this type of hypocrisy show up in the film itself?

Now the synopsis above was copied verbatim from the press notes of the film, and the story is said that the characters confront racism during their journey. How exactly is racism confronted in the film? Well, there is the running joke features Tony being more of an expert in black culture than Dr. Shirley, which paints a portrait of an Italian-American who is more knowledgeable about blackness than an actual black man, purely because he eats fried chicken and enjoys the music of a few black musicians. The notion also includes dialogue exchanges like “Christ, I’m blacker than you are!” and “My world is way more blacker than yours!” and those lines are delivered by an Italian man to a black man. If that paragraph doesn’t make you cringe, don’t worry, there’s more.

The use of the titular green book (that is representative of racial segregation) of the film is insignificant and downright insulting. After we see Tony receive The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, it’s barely ever seen or mentioned again for the remainder of the film. The fact that the film is named after such an artifact (if it even deserves to be called that) is so duplicitous and disingenuous of the filmmakers.

It doesn’t help that all the conflicts are glossed over and tied up in a neat bow so quickly, that it just feels phony and inconsequential. There’s a character reveal in that it goes into the sexuality of Ali’s character, but it’s examined and thrown away so quickly, it feels like it was ticked off a checklist of how to add more conflict into the film. It just feels phony and cynical.

There’s one scene in the film that depicts cruelty and mistreatment at the hands of the police department, only for a later scene to explicitly (to put it lightly) propose that not all cops were quite so bad. The two lead characters get in a big argument at one point, but right after, they reconcile as if nothing had happened. Again, it just comes across as a task on a checklist waiting to be ticked off. Even the ending comes off as particularly fake, since it is basically a beat-for-beat recreation of the ending in the comedy/drama Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The glossing also goes to the characters, who come off as stereotypes and entities with mannerisms rather than actual human beings, which is ironic since this film is based on a true story. For a film about racism, you would think the film would focus on the person who is suffering from the racism would be the lead character, right? No, of course not. Why would you think that(?!)

Mahershala Ali feels tied down in his underwritten role as the piano genius talent, whose dialogue consists of tired lectures and stone-faced expressions for the majority of the film. There are moments of potential where the character could transcend the stereotype, but since the film is told in the point-of-view of Tony, he just comes off as a plot device that benefits the character of Tony, rather than be a full-fledged human being, which completely invalidates the conceits of the film.

And of course there’s Viggo Mortensen as Tony. If you thought the performances in Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s comedy/drama Don Jon were annoying in how exaggerated they were in how Italian they are, Mortensen’s performance makes them look positively subtle in comparison. Using weight gain, lots of hand waving and decibel-pushing accents, backed with a crummy script, Mortensen ends up embarrassing himself in such a miscalculated caricature of a performance that is laughable but never funny. The only character in the film that feels genuine is Tony’s wife, Dolores Vallelonga, played by Linda Cardellini. who barely even makes an impression thanks to her underwritten character work.

It’s hard to believe that this kind of film exists in 2018 and yet here we are. Alongside Driving Miss Daisy, The Blind Side, the underseen film Mr. Church (also directed by Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford) and many others, Green Book is a film about racism that’s told almost entirely through the eyes of, you guessed it correctly, a white person, and it really shows.

Of all the critically acclaimed films out there in 2018 that had stories about race told by African American filmmakers, the film that gets awarded in Hollywood the most is the one told by white people. And it shows that once again that good intentions alone do not make a good film.

TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Green Book is in cinemas now.

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