Who wants Dr Feelgood when we really need tough love?
‘Green Book’ isn't quite schmaltz, but its sentimental view of race relations is wrong for the times
We live in racially charged times. From the rise of the far right in the US and Europe to the daily outrage inspired by white people throwing around the k-word in SA as if it’s still 1948, relations between black and white are regressing – or at least just not pretending that they’re fine any more.
What’s needed is a hard-hitting, wake-up call of a film that reminds us of the consequences of racial prejudice and the need for us to re-evaluate the artificially created, deep-seated boundaries that tear us apart.
What we get instead is yet another sentimental, nostalgia-drenched, slice-of-true-life, gently humorous tale of the power of humanity to shine through and bind everyone together during the terrible times of not so long ago.
In the vein of The Help, The Butler and Hidden Figures, comedy director Peter Farrelly’s first foray into serious territory, Green Book, delivers a perfectly acceptable, well-acted, infuriatingly comfortable and easy to digest tale of cross-racial buddy love in the era of pre-civil rights America.
Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of Italian bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who gets a job as driver for popular entertainer Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who is embarking on a tour of the South. This is the South of the early 1960s when black people are still steered out of potentially troublesome encounters by The Green Book – a guide informing them of where they can eat and stay without breaking any Jim Crow laws.
It’s a gender-flipped Driving Miss Daisy, and the script written by Vallelonga’s son Nick makes much of the quietly comic moments of misunderstanding between its central pair. Dr Shirley is not black enough for black people but still too black for white people, while Tony is just a regular neighbourhood Italian guy from the Bronx who displays the prejudices of his class and upbringing but is big enough to learn how to overcome them as the journey progresses.
Farrelly’s previous comic experience allows for deft handling of the humorous moments and he shows he can do more than the gross-out silliness he and his brother are most famous for in films like There’s Something About Mary. The film is also saved from descending into full schmaltz mode by Mortensen and Ali who have an easy, charming rapport that’s hard not to fall for.
However there’s not much original here in the way of story or themes and we’ve seen it all many times before – two people from different sides of the racial divide are thrown together by circumstance and learn to just genuinely like each other and wouldn’t the world be better place if we could all just get along?
That may be fine for many people but I’m not sure it’s enough for these very tense and charged times when it’s obvious that the question of race is far more complicated and in need of proper, layered exploration than simply yet another black-white-buddy tale that ends with everyone having themselves a merry little multiracial Christmas.