Hollywood has been making dumb movies about race for a long time.
From “To Kill A Mockingbird” to “Mississippi Burning” to “The Help,” they’re all dumb is same way. In Hollywood’s self-righteous fantasyland, white people are the saviors who swoop in and bravely save black people from Jim Crow.
And in these movies, black characters are written as saints, not as actual people. In contrast to hateful white racist villains, the black people in the Hollywood version of the Civil Rights era are inhumanly patient and forgiving.
I don’t know what is going on in the guilt-ridden minds of white directors that makes them want to pretend that black people of the 1950s and 60s were not subject to the same character flaws as everyone else. Indeed, logic dictates that black people were probably angrier on average since they had to put up with more indignity and hardship.
The star of “Green Book” – Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) – is no saint. And he’s definitely angry. He’s the opposite of Morgan Freeman’s character in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and not just because Dr. Shirley is the one being chauffeured around.
“Green Book” tells the true story of a mob-affiliated bouncer who was hired to drive a black musician around the American south in 1962.
When we meet Dr. Shirley, he is conducting a job interview from the African throne he has in the middle of his living room. This sets the stage for the first half of the film, where Dr. Shirley – an acclaimed concert pianist – treats everyone around him like his servants.
Dr. Shirley is especially hard on his chauffeur/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The artist is arrogant, haughty, demanding, impatient, ungrateful and judgmental.
Dr. Shirley is an intellectual bully. Fortunately, Tony is such a good-natured, happy guy that he weathers the abuse with a smile. Shirley has a doctorate in psychology, but it’s streetwise Tony who understands that the artist’s behavior is driven by loneliness and sorrow.
Slowly, Tony’s patience and professionalism wins Dr. Shirley over. On the surface, this is a classic mixed-race buddy movie where both guys learn to appreciate each other. Tony learns to appreciate his boss’s awesome piano talent. But mostly it is fancy-pants Dr. Shirley who learns a lesson about how working-class white people aren’t so stupid and worthless after all.
Director Peter Farrelly (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) makes Tony undeniably lovable, but he never gives in to the White Savior trope. For all his character flaws, it is Dr. Shirley alone who battles the outrageous rules of the Jim Crow south.
There is nothing brilliant or surprising about this family-friendly PG-13 movie. But it is better than the sum of its parts thanks to the restrained, realistic performances by the two amazing lead actors. I think they both will get Oscar nominations.
“Green Book” is the feel-good dramedy of the Holiday Season. It is less artsy, less pretentious but more intelligent and well-crafted than the average Hollywood race movie. It has more in common with “Rush Hour” than “The Help,” and I mean that as a compliment.
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