I’ve been struggling with how to review Green Book, which I wanted to love, but wound up leaving me with some pretty complicated feelings, not all of them good. It’s currently sitting at 82% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 94% audience approval rating), with most critics praising the powerful performances of its two leads and appreciating its story of unlikely interracial friendship.
On the first point, I offer no dispute – Viggo Mortensen (practically unrecognizable from his Lord of the Rings days) imbues Tony Vallelonga, the Italian-American nightclub-bouncer-turned-driver, with a sloppy, gruffly endearing charisma. And Mahershala Ali portrays Dr. Don Shirley, the African-American piano virtuoso who hires Tony to drive him around on his concert tour of the Jim Crow South, with quiet dignity and powerful restraint, belying his simmering anger at the racial injustice he is forced to politely endure for the sake of his career. Both performances are exemplary, and the two play off each other with an easy chemistry that is truly a pleasure to watch.
Further complicating my feelings is the fact that both Vallelonga and Shirley were real people, and the friendship on which this movie is based was a real one, so it’s impossible to critique the characters or story without acknowledging the real history on which they are based. Green Book was co-written by Vallelonga’s son, Nick, who drew on the stories both his father and Shirley had told him of their time together in order to pen the script (both Vallelonga and Shirley passed away in 2013). Nick Vallelonga has insisted that it was important for him to tell the story as truthfully as possible, save for a few small tweaks (such as where an event happened) for dramatic effect.
Watching the movie, his intentions seem good. It’s evident that he wanted to portray both Tony and Shirley in a flawed but ultimately positive light, and to highlight the importance of forging authentic bonds with people who are not like us in order to improve both ourselves and the world around us. It’s an admirable goal, and the film is engaging and heartwarming, well-paced and wonderfully acted.
From the opening scenes of Green Book, I couldn’t help but notice that its narrative noticeably centered its white protagonist over its Black one. While we spend a significant amount of time with Tony in the beginning of the film, watching him at work, at home, with his family, and with his friends, we don’t meet Shirley until Tony does. It would’ve been easy to mirror the Tony scenes with images of Shirley at home, playing piano, interacting with the various people in his life, but the film does not do this, opting instead to frame his introduction as a “reveal” – not only is the “Doctor” interviewing Tony for the driver position not a medical doctor, as Tony had assumed, but he’s also – gasp! – Black.
Since Tony has already been established as a not-so-casual racist (going so far as to throw the glasses his wife uses to offer the Black handymen fixing his kitchen a drink of water into the garbage), Shirley’s dark skin is already sufficient to “other” him in Tony’s eyes, but the film takes that othering a step further; when we meet him, Shirley is wearing a resplendent white-and-gold dashiki (West African robe) and is seated on a literal gilded throne.
Introducing Dr. Shirley in this way accomplishes a couple important things. First, right off the bat, it presents Shirley entirely from Tony’s perspective, a framing device that will be continued throughout the rest of the film. Secondly, it distances the audience from Shirley, presenting him as an exotic enigma rather than a fully formed human being like Tony. While the external details of this first meeting may or may not be accurate, there is no attempt made to understand Shirley’s decision to present himself in this way (he dresses very conservatively for the rest of the film), or why he seems so eager to work with Tony at all when Tony’s behavior during their interview comes across as, at best, dismissive, and at worst, blatantly racist.
As the two characters embark on the road trip that takes up the rest of the film’s runtime, this sort of centering of Tony’s perspective continues, despite Green Book being billed and marketed as ostensibly having two leads. Tony is clearly the protagonist of this story, with Shirley a supporting character (while Tony has quite a bit of screen time without Shirley, the reverse cannot be said). What’s more, Tony never seems to fully shed his racist views; while he eventually stops using racial slurs and exercising segregationist views, it still feels like he enjoys Shirley’s company only because Shirley has very few “Black” mannerisms. He is meticulously neat and well-spoken, bucking the stereotypes Tony has internalized about Black people, and giving the distinct impression that Tony winds up liking him in spite of his Blackness, and only then because he’s not that Black.
At one point, Tony even jokes that he is “more Black” than Shirley, because he likes fried chicken and listens to the music of Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin, while Shirley remains largely uninterested in the food and music of “his people.”This claim that Tony’s ideas about the superficial trappings of “Blackness” are more central to Black identity than Shirley’s lived experience is never really challenged in a meaningful way; we’re meant to understand that Tony’s statement is one of ignorance, but the film seems content to let Tony persist in that ignorance, oblivious to the harm that he perpetuates by boiling what it means to be Black down to a couple broad stereotypes.
Even the film’s title is dulled of its bite. The Negro Motorist Green Book was widely used by Black travelers during the Jim Crow era, and contained a list of lodging facilities in each state that were willing to accommodate Black guests. It was symbolic of the inherent dangers of traveling while Black, during a time when discrimination was legal and violence and lynchings were tragically commonplace. Without a Green Book, simply stopping to rest for the night could get a Black person killed (and even with one, safety was far from a guarantee). Yet in the film, the Green Book is simply a book Tony uses to plan their stops, the same way one might use Yelp reviews today, and is given little weight beyond that.
Honestly, a few years ago, I don’t know if I would have noticed any of this. I’d have accepted this film for what it is clearly attempting to be – a heartwarming look at how authentic, open relationships have the power to help heal the racial divide in our country. But after being intentional in recent years about seeking out books and movies of all genres by creators of color, I had a hard time seeing this film as one about a mutually beneficial friendship; to me, it felt much more like a model minority Black man having to perform a stunning amount of emotional labor in order to help a white everyman clear the dismally low bar of admitting that racism is bad.
I was perplexed, because as I said earlier, the general response to this film has been overwhelmingly positive. I wondered if perhaps it was me, that I was missing something or being overly sensitive about the film’s handling of race. Once I got home from the theater, I searched for reviews from critics of color, and found that the response from Black critics been far less complimentary than Rotten Tomatoes would lead you to believe. Additionally, I was shocked to discover that the family of Dr. Shirley was not even consulted during the making of the movie, and is in fact calling for a boycott.
I want to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. After all, Nick Vallelonga was writing about his father, and it’s easy to understand why someone writing about his own family would naturally center the person to which he was closest. However, if his priority really was to be truthful and get it right, why not take the time to ensure that Dr. Shirley’s side of the story is being told with just as much love and care and nuance as Tony’s? Why not at least ask Dr. Shirley’s family if they wanted to be involved?
Whether this was a simple oversight – hard as that may be to believe – or something more darkly intentional is not for me to decide. Similarly, I can’t really presume to know the intent behind the inclusion of multiple uses of the n-word (in addition to a variety of other racial slurs) in PG-13 film. Was this word still widely used in the 1960s, and would it have been wielded vitriolically against Dr. Shirley? Almost definitely. Was it necessary to include in a PG-13 film that is theoretically attempting to honor the life of a wonderfully gifted and accomplished Black man? You’d have a hard time convincing me that it was.
It’s telling that while a PG-13 movie in America is limited to including only one f-bomb, it can include multiple uses of the n-word, a slur with such an embedded history of hatred and violence that its very utterance in every other part of civilized society, regardless of context, has become (rightly) unacceptable. (Star Viggo Mortensen recently made headlines himself for this very issue.) Yet in movies, or at least as far as the MPAA is concerned, the n-word is apparently considered less offensive than a simple, widely used term of profanity.
That our ratings system does not prioritize the lived experiences of people of color is not exactly shocking or even anomalous, but it does make me wonder, yet again, who Green Book is truly for, and what it’s trying to say. At the very least, the exclusion of Dr. Shirley’s family from the creative process, the framing of the story around a white man, and the language used by the film speaks to an attitude of indifference toward the very community it claims to be trying to lift up.
What it’s trying to say is open to interpretation. As I’ve said above, I think Green Book is about acceptance of others, and finding common ground with people who seem different from us, and the importance of friendship – all lovely, important themes worthy of exploring. But based on Green Book’s treatment of its Black protagonist, his family, and its audience, who it’s truly for – and more importantly, who it’s not for – becomes pretty clear.