Green Book

Tony Lip was a tough guy bouncer at the Copa, Copacabannnna, the hottest spot north of Havana. But in the fall of 1962, the Copacabana closed for renovations, and Tony Lip was temporarily out of work with a wife and two kids to feed at home. Some wise guys seem to imply they might have some “work” for him, but he avoids that by taking work with Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class piano player embarking on a tour of the Southern United States. Tony isn’t thrilled that Dr. Shirley is a black man – he’s not too fond of them generally, but the money is too good to turn down, even if it takes him away from his family in the two months before Christmas.

Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) are an odd couple on a road trip. Tony’s crude and crass and unrefined; he’s rarely left the neighbourhood where he grew up. Dr. Shirley is a gentleman in every respect. He’s cultured and educated. His MV5BZDE1N2U2MGUtM2JiNi00OTMzLTk2MjAtMmM0ZmQyNGZhNjg0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,882_AL_manners are as impeccable as his dress. But when Tony boasts that he’s “blacker” than Shirley, who doesn’t know Aretha Franklin or fried chicken, he’s only showing what a narrow understanding of race he has, because when Shirley is repeatedly subjected to racist indignities and abuses, Tony is shocked while Shirley is not. The “Green Book” to which the title refers is an actual motorist’s handbook, which, for $1.25 teaches people how to navigate segregation and not get lynched while traveling down south. I feel that I might have sold a Red Book for $1.50 that simply said: don’t go. But Dr. Shirley’s going on purpose, knowing it will be hard, but feeling a responsibility to do his part in challenging the system. And white people play their part, paying to enjoy\appropriate his culture while refusing to dine with him in the same room.

It’s a tough subject matter that director Peter Farrelly makes palatable with humour and a gentle approach. Mostly, though, he relies on the magnificent chemistry between Mortensen and Ali, who are both wonderful. Ali has the bearing to makes Shirley’s multiple doctorates feel plausible, and the physicality to make his piano-playing feel real (it’s not, but it’s the best we’ve seen on screen thanks to Kris Bowers, his incredibly talented double). Together, Ali and Mortensen are magic, their scenes positively crackling. And when Dr. Shirley plays, there’s so much energy, the music wells up inside you.

It’s inspiring to see a time of social change reflected in one relationship, how we really can make a difference on an individual level. It’s unsettling to watch the worst racism unfold and understand that 2018 is not exactly beyond this stuff – in fact, we may need this reminder now more than ever. However, there are some problems that I have with the movie. Namely, that the story is Tony’s to tell. That he’s a hero because he consented to drive a black man, while the black man who has a litany of actual accomplishments is quite literally relegated to the back seat, a supporting character in what should have been his film.  Why are we still telling black stories through white eyes? Why is racism only safe to talk about when it’s a white experience? Why do I know how Tony launders his underwear but know so little about Dr. Shirley, a highly educated genius musician who has traveled the world but whose only meaningful relationships come from hired help? Dr. Shirley learned to play piano from his mother, whom we know nothing about. His only living relative is an estranged brother, whom we know nothing about. Dr. Shirley had to be above reproach at all times, constantly turning the other cheek even after he’d run out of cheeks; he had to be perfect just to exist in white spaces, just to be invited into them, briefly, under strict, inhumane conditions, on white people’s terms, and then to leave again as soon as they stopped having use for him, and to smile and pretend to be grateful about the whole thing. This is a white person’s black movie, the kind of movie white people can feel superior watching because they manage to be less racist than Alabamans in 1962. Pat ourselves on the back! Meanwhile, this is the white guy’s story, written by a white guy, directed by another white guy, with Oscar buzz somehow reserved for the white actor who dropped the n-word at a screening for the film. This is the kind of Best Picture nod meant to appease diversity problems, but it’s more about white comfort than black experience. Movies like Sorry To Bother You, Blindspotting, Blackkklansman, and even Black Panther, are better movies with more to say, and they’re told with black voices, which is why they’re more easily overlooked. But fuck white comfort. This shit should make us uncomfortable. If you’re talking about racism and worried about hurting white people’s feelings, you’re doing it wrong, and it’s time to stop.

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18 thoughts on “Green Book

    1. Jay Post author

      I know. I wondered at some point – are they really trying to tell me that Tony taught him to embrace his culture and be more black? That’s pretty ballsy.

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  1. curious•pondering

    Great post! I am interested to watch it myself and hear the opinions of those around me. I agree that hushed issues should be made more prevalent. As a white Alabamian, I mainly hear the white side of the story about how much judgment we get for racism etc…, but there are still so many major problems that shouldn’t be ignored or excused with dumb reasoning…

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  2. Lavanya

    That’s unfortunately the world we still live in. The amount of times I’ve rolled my eyes over a white man coming to India and showing slums is at this point uncountable. Most people who make documentaries come to India and discuss it’s over population and slums but India is so much more. It’s true though. Movies like Black Panther work is because it showcases us the real culture of it’s people and are not thank you letters to white people for finally becoming less racist.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes!
      I mean, I think to really understand and appreciate cultures, we probably need to let that culture tell US what they think is important and relevant instead of always sending some white guy who, as you said, keeps showing the same corner of a very big world.

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  3. cineflashsite

    The fact that the story is told from a white guy point of view can be discussed indeed or even critizes. However this does not hide (it could even enhance it) the true friendship between Tony and Dr Shirley , and I think that it is the main message from the author : How to build a friendship above all clichés and judgement from our society?

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    1. Jay Post author

      Well according to the Shirley family, there was no true friendship between them, and Tony was fired on that trip. It’s a fabrication in order to tell a nicer story than what actually happened in real life. And friendships work both ways. They can be told from either side. But the black experience during segregation can only really be told from one perspective, and it was sadly neglected.

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  4. Christopher

    When the trailers for this popped up I found myself having to explain to other white people what the Green Book. It’s bad enough, I thought, that such a book was necessary, but even worse that a lot of white people–especially those in the South–don’t know what it was.
    I also understand members of Dr. Shirley’s family have disputed his portrayal in the film. Among other things he’d had fried chicken was long before this trip. That may seem like a small thing but it reminds me of the time an African American co-worker said to me, “Your mother didn’t know how to cook okra? She must be white!” It was funny (although a little uncomfortable for me, which was good) but led to a serious discussion of how food is not merely regional but cultural as well.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes, his family is not happy with the story told on screen. And no matter what, I am positive he didn’t need a white guy to put him in touch with his own culture.
      Even when we eat the same foods, we often prepare them differently. And they carry different meaning. I had a friend who refused to eat fried chicken in front of white people because the stereotype existed. It pained me to try to understand the generations of pain that result in that level of self-monitoring, to change your own neutral behaviour because of someone else’s erroneous and hateful thinking. White privilege exists in so many ways I’ll never be able to identify even a fraction, but it’s stuff like that that makes me realize how big the problem is, how easily insulated I am, how only someone who is truly privileged can possibly think they aren’t.

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  5. msjadeli

    It’s still not available here to see. I read about Viggo and his racist comment, where I guess because he played a guy in a movie who “saw the light” about racism (guessing here) it gave him permission to use a slur? I love your review, Jay. Having all white components painting a black picture is surreal, and now I hear it’s up for awards? Ugh. It would be like an all male group creates a film about female exploitation and oppression. Not flying in my book. I saw Sorry to Bother You, Black KKK, and Black Panther. I love the nobleness of Black Panther. Black KKK bordered on a whitewash to me, sorry, especially after reading what Boots Riley said about it, even though it was gutsy enough to show what kind of evil the KKK gets down to. Sorry to Bother You is at the top of my charts in how things are. Thank you for having the courage to speak out on Green Book, I will go see it just because I like the two actors in it, but nobody is fooling anyone with the movie. Thank you for letting me ramble on ❤

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes, he was pointing out that it used to be acceptable to say the n-word. But he said the n-word. Which, as he’d just pointed out, is never okay to say.

      Hollywood is replete with white saviour movies. We rarely let people of colour tell their own stories.

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  6. tubularsock

    Well Tubularsock pedaled his trusty older bike over to the movie theater last night to see Green Book. The older bike option is always best at night if you are going to lock it for a period of time. Usually it will still be there when you come back out of the theater.

    Tubularsock had seen Green Book’s trailer and thought it may be worth seeing.

    Enjoying this movie even though the racism of the period was highly infuriating Tubularsock was satisfied that it held together well and the acting was solid.

    However the ending was just a little too much in Tubularsock cynical outlook.

    But hey! There are a lot of stories and relationships in the world so just maybe a positive story is possible.

    Yet it seemed to Tubularsock that the chances of a Jewish pawn broker and his wife and a gay black man and a multi-generational Italian family from the Bronx in 1962 would all break bread at Christmas dinner just seemed a little too Disney for Tubularsock.

    Enter Jay from stage left with the true details which sent Tubularsock to research the movie’s background!

    So Jay, Tubularsock thanks you for solidly substantiating Tubularsock’s highly cynical world view!

    A true Christmas Miracle!

    And Tubularsock can smile again.

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