This feelgood, cookie cutter movie barely scratches the surface of its topic; racism in the deep south of the US in the 60s. A good example of a white saviour movie, it centres its story firmly and unapologetically on the experiences of a good-hearted, racist white guy.
Viggo Mortensen is weirdly convincing as pugilistic New York Italian Tony Vallelonga. His quick temper gets in the way of consistent employment and, rather than take on work for the mob, he accepts a two month stint as driver for pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Don is touring through the southern states, something essentially dangerous for a person of colour in towns where there is still segregation and curfews for non-whites.
The narrative is predictable; Tony steps in to vouch for and protect Don when he is threatened, beaten, arrested and excluded and so learns to be less racist. He is a racist but only a gentle one, it seems, not like the monsters they meet in the South. He also teaches Don a few things; about contemporary musicians of colour (I kid you not) and how to be less pious, prissy and pompous. As the film is based on a story by Tony’s son Nick, it’s not surprising that it is somewhat a hagiography. It has some nice, gentle humour and is absorbing in its depiction of 60s America. The chemistry between Don and Tony feels genuine.
This film, of course, won the best picture Oscar and if you want to understand why so many people are upset about that, watch this satirical trailer for a fictitious film White Savior. Green Book ticks most of the boxes and “pushes a Black helplessness narrative that paints Black people as passive in their own history.” That it won the big prize over the sublime Roma says a lot about the voting panel who were predominantly white men (69% male, 84% white). Green Book, like Hidden Figures, is an excellent example of films that comfort white people into feeling that really bad racism is a thing of the past and is perpetrated only by really bad people, not people like themselves who, like Tony, are benignly racist (and that’s not harmful, right?) and only until they meet an actual decent person of colour.
It failed the Bechtel Test which is unfortunately an expected disappointment. The only female role of significance is Tony’s wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) and it seems that America in the 60s was populated predominantly by (white) blokes. If you scan through the top billed cast on IMDb, after Mahershala Ali, the next credited person of colour is 23 people later – Kenneth Israel as Bronx Floor Repairman #1. The only named characters I could find played by people of colour are Iqbal Theba as Amit and David An as Bobby – that’s 3 in 35 named characters and I can’t even remember Bobby’s character.
Although not a terrible movie – and I expect many of my white friends who prefer movies that comfort rather than challenge will really like it – it’s elevation at the Oscars has highlighted once again the bias of the film industry. That it is being talked about as a problem gives me hope.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.