GREEN BOOK : Movie Review
5 stars out of 5 (Outstanding)
Director : Peter Farrelly
Writers : Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
English , 2018
PLEASE NOTE : This film is based on a true story. Even allowing for creative license, the film has been criticized from some key quarters from not conforming to actual life, both in terms of the personalities it depicts and the events. Therefore , I will make no reference to real life here and treat the movie purely as a fictitious entity.
Notwithstanding mutiple allegations of this being a "white saviour" film ( the white man saving the back man) , what explains 'The Green Book''s triumph in circles less likely to applaud it ? Canny watchers know this film would click and bring in the moolah, but even amongst a wide swathe of high-brow observers, 'Green Book' has disclosed its well-thumbed nature, bringing multiple high-profile accolades to this heart-baking tale of a black musician being ferried across the dangerous American South by a white driver in the U.S.A of 1962.
Those aware of the current political climate in U.S.A would be severely remiss in missing the allusions to Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The black gentleman ( Don Shirley, immaculately orchestrated by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) hews arguably closer to Obama in multiple ways, while the white not-so-gentlemanly character ( Frank Vallelonga's act banged out lustily by Viggo Mortenson) is a vast improvement on the utterly shameless rascal who sits in the Oval Office from 2017 to 2020 and perhaps beyond.
It's 1962 New York - a gent who looks like an African prince but whose speech reveals him to be a cultured erudite American, summons a man of Italian-American heritage to his spacious oafishly rich apartment. The former is Don Shirley, an outstanding pianist who now wishes to tour the Southern United States over two months leading up to Christmas, playing to "very educated and highly cultured" audiences. Since he stands a handsome chance of being brutalized by the various racist sons and daughters of Uncle Sam during this tour of the moral boondocks, he wants a physically and mentally strong chauffeur who can block the blow. Enquiries for a reliable iron-fisted professional lead him to Frank Vallelonga - a nightclub bouncer whose desperate need for money make him reluctantly agree to the $125 per week gig. And so starts an unlikely friendship, bolstered by the thorns and hellfires of the goodly folks they meet along the way.
Psychologically, the progression of both characters is convincing, and this is one of the film's key strengths. Shirley is inexorably gentlemanly and honourable, but also a bit naive in certain street-smart tactics , despite his self-admitted life-long brutal exposure to the racist world around him. By the pic's end , his solid character remains more or less the same, but he has "wisened" up a little in the ways of the street, apart from the bruisingly bracingly gained knowledge that a white man did stand up to fight for him on multiple occasions. Vallelonga, we see , does this even when the matter of his continued salary is beside the point.
But the latter has much more space to evolve and so he does, mainly in shedding his racist hatred. At the start of the story, he prefers to trash the glasses used by African-American workmen in his house, and the betterment of this part of his nature is admittedly engineered by the script a little too fast. This is only justifiable, logically speaking, when we accept that Vallelonga inherently believes in the colour-blind worth of a human and that his racist attitudes were a blackmark encouraged by a lazy sense of introspection. Confronted with the rampant and evil discrimination flung at his distinguished employer, he changes and then even charges forward in retaliation when prevailing moral standards do not require him to. Otherwise, if this were a man of inherently petty nature, he would never change this much.
Pic's tenor is softened by humour that liberally peppers and peps up the proceedings. Shirley helping the ham-spoken Vallelonga to write genuinely inflammatory love letters to his wife, the exhortation to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in the backseat of a car which the high-minded pianist gingerly fingers and mouths, are some of the light-hearted highlights. The director, surprisingly, is Peter Farrelly, the co-writer and director of such comic masterpieces like 'Dumb and Dumber' which was too funny for a galaxy of dumb stuck-up critics to appreciate, and other beauties like 'There's Something Like Mary' which took it up several notches bolder in the annals of shameless cinematic goofiness. He plumbed his nadir with 'Hall Pass' but comes out blazingly good in his finest hour with the current feature. Farrelly's no-holds barred politically incorrect past also gives him the confidence to jettison concerns of supposed racism and allow the finale to feature Ali doing what another director would have been hesitant to portray.
The script, composed by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and the director himself, still ranks as the movie's single biggest strength, trumping the solid direction and stellar acting, being constantly on the look-out for event dynamics and character development. It is also the reason why Farrelly achieves what he never could in his previous features.
The racist streaks that rip up and stitch together the narrative are again a lacerating reminder of how cruel and demeaning we are to our sisters and brothers. Shirley is systemically set upon by a variety of racists - who will throw garbage on his pre-event piano, stop his car in the night and ask him what he is doing as a passenger in this neck of the cursed woods, give him only a run-down dump to stay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1962 no matter how much money he has, show him to a changing room that is a cramped closet next to the kitchen , not allow him to eat in the restaurant even though he is a star performer due to play in the same place that evening, and who will beat up and nearly kill him when he wanders into a bar. His career is nearly capsized by constant discouragement from his white countrymen who disapprove of his original and abiding love for Western-classical piano compositions - they'd rather have him play jazz whish is supposedly more in keeping with African-American inclination. Shirley's co-performers - a European duo of cellists - are only a little less worse, extolling his virtues but not bothering to ease their haunches to defend him when he gets into trouble.
Mahershala Ali is simply splendid as the quarter-naive half-martyred completely-stately pianist. 'Dignity Always Wins' he calmly yet forcefully proclaims even in the face of severe provocation, a moving echo of the African-American who became the President of the United States nearly five decades later. Slim as a switch and elegantly attired, Ali's character weaves and polishes his demeanour and speech to mirror the immaculate spine of the old European maestros' compositions he's naturally geared to play. Viggo Mortenson's Frank Vallelonga is superb - a karmically good version of the Joe Pesci character - a tough guy unafraid to smash into those who act dishonourable. Down-homey, no-nonsense and steadily disclosing a warm-hearted chumminess-'n'-loyalty, Mortenson clay-sculpts the figure of a genuine friend who is rare to find.
So is this really a "white saviour" film ? No , in the opinion of yours truly , who has lived amongst white people for several years , who has had to contend with prejudice against coloured people, and who has also benefitted from the cine-lens of such myriad race-scorchers as 'Do The Right Thing', 'Crash' and '12 Years a Slave'. Who the white man here does save, is himself, swiftly stripping away his racial stigmata and crossing one leg of salvation implicit in the nakedness of colour-blind humanism. The black man here did not need much saving to begin with, having got his act together far before this story begins. In the four months since its release, pic has garnered $ 276 million from a $ 23 million budget. I never gave too much importance to the Oscar, it being little more than just another mega-political ticket but this time in 2019 , The Best Picture Oscar indulged in the right kind of politics. That award to 'Green Book' is a slap in the face of half of U.S.A which has stood behind their racist president.
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