Green Book is almost refreshingly tone-deaf in its mid-century liberalism. Which, apparently, is still late 2010s liberalism, if writers Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the protagonist) have anything to say about it. And, if for no other reason than to remind us that this variant of faux-egalitarian genteel liberal cinema undetained by questions of power and politics still exists this deep into the 21st century, I suppose I have to thank Green Book for taking my breath away. With Moonlight, Sorry to Bother You, and Us, I’d hoped we’d moved on. But here I am about to claim anything especially positive about late ‘10s American cinema on the subject of race, and Green Book has kindly arrived to keep me on my guard. Would that the film had any interest in exploring what its African-American deuteragonist has to do to keep himself on guard.
Instead of what it does do, which is – to the surprise of no one – subsume Shirley’s personal and physical crises to the role of a reflective mirror for a white protagonist. The two characters I write of are classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), about to depart for a two-month concert trip through the Jim Crow South in roughly November and December of 1962, and Italian-American (the film is very interested in us knowing that he is Italian-American) working-stiff Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), hired to serve as Dr. Shirley’s chauffer and all-purpose bodyguard. The conceit of the narrative, then, rests on our awareness that a black man in the South in the ‘60s will, as Tony informs us, cause “trouble”. But that trouble is more important for us, meaning white America, than for Shirley, at least in the film’s mind. The film’s perspective is almost exclusively hewn to Tony’s, the script exhibiting a clear favoritism for his moral awakening compared with Shirley’s plight, let alone the collective suffering of African-Americans in the South (or North), all of whom are meaningful in the film only as background.
As – to be honest – is Tony. While I’ve already made the obvious point – that Shirley only exists in this film to validate Tony’s crisis of conscience – the truth is that Green Book has an almost exclusively functionalist relationship to all of its characters (but especially Shirley). It treats them each as a collection of qualities and features that never come into play except in moments where the plot finds them instrumental or where they can be expressly thematized. Thus, Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality is “useful” for the film in one scene, and briefly in a second, and evaporated from the film’s conscious at all other times. And to any dubious claims that this serves some sort of “humanist” purpose – to ask us not to over-emphasize any identitarian features in order to treat Donald as a “person” first and foremost (rather than a black person, a gay person, etc) – the film submits not one ounce of stray human energy to suggest that it actually ever cares about these characters as people in the first place. No internal desires or personal uncertainties seep out of the tight confines of film narrative. There’s no room for any personal excess – for the characters to exhibit traits or features which the film doesn’t know what to do with, which it can’t immediately schematize and instrumentalize toward a kind of dialectic synthesis designed to harmonize the two main characters into a friendship. (The film does, admittedly, make the somewhat bold decision to give Tony a character trait that I don’t know what to do with, namely that he is the type of person who enjoys folding an entire pizza in half and eating it at once). Continue reading