Paul Schrader recently said it best on Facebook, “never to underestimate the power of mediocrity.”
Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly, as one-half of the Farrelly brothers who gave us esteemed masterpieces such as Dumb and Dumber To, There’s Something About Mary, The Three Stooges, and Movie 43. Peter Farrelly’s directorial debut was Dumb and Dumber which was written by himself and his brother Bobby. Whether it was more hands-off or similar to the Coen brothers where they both directed, but only had one directorial credit is unsure. Peter then spent the rest of his filmmaking career making slapstick comedy films and cultivated in producing and directing a few segments of Movie 43. One of the segments he directed included Hugh Jackman in a vignette where he had testicles on his neck. Soon after that, he decided to try and solve racism with his latest endeavor, Green Book.
Green Book is based on (or inspired by, whichever allows more artistic liberties) the true story of the friendship between Dr. Don Shirley and Frank Anthony Vallelonga. It was written by one of Frank’s (or more commonly known, Tony Lip) sons, Nick. Nick makes two appearances in the film, one being as a child and one where he plays a mobster who asks him if he wants to make some money as the Copacabana is closed down for 2 months. At this time, he receives a phone call asking if he would like to drive Doctor Shirley around the south for his tour. I forgot to mention that Don is African-American and Tony is Italian. And mildly racist to say the least. He eventually agrees to go on tour and what follows is the two begin becoming friends. Tony is just on the right side of loveable scum. He has his prejudices and thinks poorly of others, but he won’t be about to yell obscenities at someone, he’s kind like that. He would prefer not to interact with people outside his race, but he can be civil, especially for a paycheque.
As the film progresses, they begin having a friendship of sorts. Since the film has been released, the line between truth and fiction has become blurry due to some of Shirley’s relatives making statements that they were never friends and referring to it as a “symphony of lies”. It’s clear that the film took only the perspective of Tony and eventually made him be the white saviour, while also allowing Shirley to be the “magical negro” and together, they would help change the mind and hearts of people who are similar to Tony. In reality, the film boils down to a very basic “just be nice to people, regardless of race.”
The film premiered at TIFF this past fall where it eventually won the People’s Choice Award. I caught the film with a few friends, including writer Arianne and I believe we all walked out thinking similar thoughts. Of course, it won. Looking at our heated climate, we need to reward films that allow us to realize that racism is bad, and if we vote against it – then that clearly makes us an awful human being. This is my reasoning for why it eventually won Best Picture, just like Crash did.
In reality, the film is fine. Some vibrant cinematography and some great acting by the cast. It’s easy to watch because the film is completely safe in absurd ways. It’s a film about race struggles written and directed by people who shouldn’t have a say in it. The film’s title comes from a book written by Victor Hugo Green called The Negro Motorist Green Book. From 1936-1966, Victor wrote variations of the book to allow “all Negroes who can do so purchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation, and insult.” Once again, it allows people to be free of insult based on who they are. Outside of it briefly mentioned when the book is passed to Tony, it is rarely brought up again. Nor was it brought up when the film won any of its awards, including Best Original Screenplay or Best Picture at the Oscars.
I believe more important and better films were nominated for both awards. Personally, I would have preferred The Favourite or First Reformed to win, which was Paul Schrader’s first Academy nomination. I think it’s kinda ridiculous that this film won when you look at the opposite category, Spike Lee was able to take the award for Best Adapted Screenplay with BlackKklansman. In the Spike Lee joint, he tackles racism but finally and properly from a lead that is a person of colour. In fact, the white role played by Adam Driver takes a step back in the story until he needs to be used. While both films are period pieces and would make us think about how we’ve done better as a society, it’s clear that Spike wants the audience to know that can’t be further from the truth. We should be doing better, but it’s clear that we really haven’t.
If films like Green Book can take the big gold statues home, then maybe I don’t want works of art like Roma in the running either, it lessens the impact when movies that deserve the award actually get to go home with them.
You can get it on Blu-ray March 12th, or buy it digitally now.