I have a soft spot for this kind of movie — movies about people who wouldn’t be expected to form a bond and who nevertheless do. I liked The Intouchables (2011) for much the same reason.
Two fantastic actors make Green Book work. Mahershala Ali is the musical genius Dr Don Shirley, an African-American classical and jazz pianist. Viggo Mortensen plays brash, vulgar “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a New York bouncer looking for a job after his nightclub is temporarily closed.
We see the racism of the 1960s through the eyes of these two individuals.
Tony is a racist character, as insular as they come in his Italian-American enclave in New York, living in the same neighborhood as all his extended family. Before meeting Don, he goes so far as to throw away the glasses two black repairmen drank lemonade from. I had a little trouble believing Tony was so naïve about what Don would have to face in his tour through the Deep South, especially since racism existed all around him.
As for Don, he is shown as a brilliant, lonely, highly educated man who chooses to face the dangers of the Deep South as a matter of principle. But he was a musical prodigy, and it was difficult to believe he’d never heard the music of Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and others.
The two characters form a bond through two months of the southern tour. There were a few scenes that made me wince — the fried chicken scene, for example. But watching these two completely different people connect was rewarding.
Obviously there are a lot of instances of racism in the movie – that’s the point. I found it telling that the people who hosted Don in their estates and concert venues as a mark of their sophistication, were the same people who refused to let him use the nearby restroom, eat at their restaurants or stay at their hotels. The movie’s title refers to the real Green Book, which listed hotels and restaurants that would accept black travelers.
This isn’t a movie about saving the world, and it isn’t perfect. Racism wasn’t “fixed” when the story was over. It’s simply a story about two individual characters, seeing humanity in each other, and growing a little. I like that.
The movie has won several award nominations — and won three Golden Globe awards — but also drawn criticism for how it handled the divisive issue of racism. Here’s some more info about the movie, including some criticisms:
From the Smithsonian: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/true-story-green-book-movie-180970728/
From the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/green-book-won-big-at-the-golden-globes-will-it-hold-up-under-increased-scrutiny/2019/01/08/5eb0365e-135e-11e9-90a8-136fa44b80ba_story.html?utm_term=.aee6d4d189f2
From Vulture: https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/green-book-flopped-but-who-was-it-supposed-to-be-for.html