*** (out of ****)
Something under the hood of the car has given up, and the two men must pull off to the side of the road so that the driver can fix it. The passenger steps out, too, after a particularly long stretch of road, and to the car’s left is a field, full of workers harvesting crops. The passenger’s realization is immediate, but he takes in the scene, just as we do: The field is a plantation, and the workers are black. The passenger, a concert pianist being driven along his tour route, is black, too. His driver is white, and the part-bemused, part-baffled looks from the workers when they see this arrangement in the middle of their labor say it all.
This is the key moment in Green Book, a dramatization of the time a black concert pianist was transported between tour venues by a white jazz-club bouncer, and it says more about the film’s priorities than any moment of realization made by the white half of this pairing. For the black man, it is a realization of the privilege he has on account of living in the North, to have amassed a fair amount of wealth, and to have been given enough respect in the Tri-State area to interview white men for the driving job. This is still the Deep South in the early 1960s, he is still black, and that fact still comes with certain complications.
The pianist is Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), and the driver, who acts as the chief protagonist in this story, is Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The arrangement is made after Frank’s club is shut down for “maintenance” reasons (It’s actually because of a rowdy patron whom the bouncer ejects, then punches a few too many times to send a message). Frank is to drive Shirley through the Deep South, using a book to stop at the various hotels and motels, where folks of color must stay segregated from white visitors. Of course, the casually racist Frank will inevitably learn from and come to respect his boss.
This is not a subtle film, of course, but these were not subtle times. We learn a little about the men otherwise – Shirley has an estranged brother whom he has not seen in years, and Frank has a wife (played by Linda Cardellini) and two sons (one of whom, Nick Vallelonga, co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly) – but the film is mainly a straightforward dramatization of the concert tour, with stops along the way illustrating the deep-seated prejudice met by Shirley, who is beaten by racist thugs in a bar, forbidden to eat among his white audience members at a country club on Christmas evening, and is arrested alongside Frank during a routine traffic stop on the wrong road in the wrong town.
Such experiences also inevitably chip away at Frank’s set-in-his-ways view of the world. Again, this isn’t a subtle. It is, though, a surprisingly compassionate one, particularly because the performances by and chemistry between Mortensen and Ali, both very good here, are so attuned to the complex dynamic between the two men. Their relationship is what anchors and elevates a simple story of racism, pushing back against prejudice, and coming to grasp the small things that widen one’s perspective. Green Book is the very definition of old-fashioned, but it is a surprisingly worthy examination of a formative relationship.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)