Green Book (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Green Book (2018)

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Don Shirley is looking for an escort through the American south, and might have found more than he bargained for in the loose-lipped and quick with his fists Tony Lip. Peter Farrelly directs Green Book, with the screenplay written by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Hayes Currie, and stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

The defining point of my experience watching Green Book came a bit over halfway through when, despite all my internal resistance, I felt it work just a bit. I liked watching Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) spitball ideas for love letters to Tony's wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). It was nice watching two people who spent so much time talking over each other finding a way to connect and the punctuation mark of Mortensen cautiously speaking through each line was adorable.  Then barely a beat later and Tony's yelling about being blacker than Don and I want to die of secondhand shame for everyone involved in Green Book since they didn't have the decency to destroy the film stock themselves.

That brief bit of charm cannot overcome what a colossally ill-conceived venture Green Book is. No, we do not need white men explaining black culture to black men in any film of 2018 (let alone since cinema began). We just aren't that advanced as a society, haven't been able to even begin the process of reconciling our ongoing oppression of black Americans, and it's certainly not going to happen in a Peter Farrelly film that opens with the largest assemblage of Italian stereotypes this side of a poor Goodfellas cosplay session yelling, "Oh, hey, Ima yellin' the lines here, this is whata the Italians do right? Letsa scream at the baseball. Pasta Italiano wife-o makea me a plate-o." It will not shock you to learn those aren't direct quotes from the dialogue but if it was in any way annoying to read I assure you hearing it was worse.This cloying bit of working-class fakery isn't entertaining and Farrelly directs the lineup of stereotypes with somehow less panache than the comedies he made his name on in the '90s. See, this is a serious film about serious things, so punching things up for entertainment is out of the question. Better instead to insert an unnecessary amount insert shots showing Dolores smiling at Tony's letters or an entire series of shots showing Tony and Don pulling over to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken. That's about the extent of their characterization and you'd think if Farrelly, along with screenwriters Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, felt so locked into the white experience as to not consult Don Shirley's living relatives that they'd bother to at least make the white characters have decent arcs. They don't.

So all we're left with is Don and, god bless Ali for trying, Don is the type of black character cliché only white authors can come up with when studiously avoiding other clichés. Farrelly and crew go out of their way to drain Don of any semblance of black identity until all they're left with is the distilled emptiness of respectability politics shaped into a human outline. Don's first appearance, for Chrissakes, has him looking like he rolled out of a trailer of unused costumes for Coming to America played 100% straight. The Farrelly of old would have had the bad taste to at least try and make a joke out of this but he's a "serious" filmmaker now so those ostentatious fabrics billow onscreen while I beg for someone - anyone - to say or do something that might disrupt the placid respectability of it all.

Don is so empty that when he starts his emotional speech about not being sure of his place it reads only as a screenwriter's admission of guilt. They even trot out the cliché of the non-white shopper denied access to a clothing store.  The earliest I know of is in Selena, the biopic starring Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos, but that film had a firm understanding of families learning to shoulder the bigotry of white people between generations. Selena also had great music, a part of Green Book that should have been an easy inclusion but because Farrelly focuses so heavily on Tony's perspective almost all Don's piano pieces are heard in bits. The only piece heard clearly is when Don fulfills Tony's expectations of what parts of black culture Tony thinks Don should inhabit, not because Don gets to play for himself.And right there is the biggest problem. Farrelly and crew, by their own admission, barely bothered consulting Don's family when creating Green Book and Don's family didn't take too kindly to that. Even without that bit of knowledge, Green Book is about how a walking cliché learns to get along with another - even emptier - cliché. With that knowledge, Green Book becomes yet another example of white people thinking they understand the stories of black people better than they do. This isn't even speculation at this point since Farrelly admits to going forward with the project with the scraps he had and that he wouldn't have let the family change the story anyway.

Farrelly and crew have since gone on to win awards for Green Book and, even in face of the criticism, sure as hell aren't in a hurry to abdicate them in favor of diverse films that respected their subjects. This final nail is just one more piece of evidence exposing Green Book for what it is - a reductive piece of white supremacist entertainment made for cowards who have no interest in learning about the very subject they're making a film about. If you, as an audience member, take offense to that description of the filmmakers I'd like to remind you of the phrase, "A hit dog will holler."

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Green Book (2018)

Directed by Peter Farrelly.
Screenplay written by Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Hayes Currie.
Starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

Posted by Andrew

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