Black and White - Green Book
The first time I saw a trailer for this, the eye roll it induced lasted an hour. On the surface, it looks like the sappiest of sap—a self-proclaimed balm that would show the path to solving racism. And while the movie itself isn’t much deeper than that, it is so superficially satisfying that it’s hard not to appreciate the charm. The performances are wonderful, the narrative is heartfelt and you would be hard-pressed not to at least chuckle a few times. It has a heart and energy that belies its rudimentary story. Of everything I have seen this year, it may be #1 on the list of movies that really sneak up on you with their quality.
The film opens with an introduction to Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (played masterfully by Viggo Mortensen), a New York City bouncer with ties to organized crime. We see him struggle to provide for his family while also remaining safe. Based on his reputation as streetwise, he eventually gets an unusual opportunity to accompany a classical pianist on a tour around the country. The classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (played beautifully by Mahershala Ali), is world-renowned and has played for world leaders. He also happens to be a Black man and thus faces rampant prejudice while touring.
While on the road, the two strike up a friendship and we are treated to a seemingly endless vignettes that illustrate the foundations of their bond. The juxtaposition of the refined Dr. Shirley and the more ‘rough around the edges’ Tony Lip produces scene after scene of laughs and heartfelt expression.
“The Green Book” refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, which offered travelers a directory of hotels, restaurants and business that would cater to Black patrons. While it is only mentioned in passing throughout the movie, it always lingers beneath the surface as Tony and Dr. Shirley encounter a range of receptions in their travels. Ultimately, the two end up completing the tour and learning real life lessons about love, friendship and humanity.
Yes, the rendering of racism in this movie is somewhat Disneyfied. I am sure the contours of their companionship were more complex than could be captured in a two-hour movie and that not every event is a spot-on recreation of what really happened. But as a work of art, it works. The events come through as credible and successfully convey exactly what I think it intends to.
The reason the movie does work so well is that it features two of the better performances you are likely to see this year. Viggo Mortensen in particular is utterly transformed as Tony Lip. And while the archetypical representation of the reformed racist is not usually my favorite, this one somehow works. Viggo imbues Tony with just enough charm that it is hard not to root for his change of heart.
If you are looking for a genuinely good time at the movies, this is it. It is not necessarily a graduate school course of race relations, but the current state of race relations suggest this elemental presentation is exactly what we need.
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