It’s sometimes easy to forget that #OscarsSoWhite was nearly three years ago, a time when no minority actors or actresses were nominated in back-to-back Academy Award ceremonies.
Movies like the Best Picture winning “Moonlight,” “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman” are proof that studios have begun empowering a wider array of filmmakers to examine new and old stories from fresh perspectives.
The rise of Netflix as a major film studio in its own right has only increased the number of opportunities given to female and minority filmmakers.
A film like “Green Book,” however, may also signal that we’re not quite there yet.
Told primarily from the perspective of a racist Italian driver by a white comedy director from a script penned by the driver’s son, “Green Book” is an intoxicating and charming biopic that feels a bit off in message and tone.
Technical advancements aside, Peter Farrelly’s newest film feels like it was made in 2008 rather than 2018.
“Green Book” is self-described as being “inspired by” the real-life friendship of Don Shirley, a famous African-American pianist, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a working class bouncer hired by Shirley to serve as driver/bodyguard for a concert tour of the American South during the 1960s.
Featuring Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Shirley and Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen as Vallelonga, “Green Book” has received acclaim from critics and average viewers alike, taking home the audience award from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, a showcase event for potential Oscar nominees.
The praise isn’t without merit. Mortensen and Ali elevate a middling script with brilliant, dynamic chemistry and deliver knockout scene after knockout scene over the course of a two-hour dramedy.
Mortensen melts into the “Tony Lip” persona, gaining upwards of 40 pounds while slovenly eating his way both figuratively and literally through scenes. Making a close minded, blue collar brute sympathetic and not stupid requires finesse and Mortensen delivers a memorable, heartwarming performance.
Despite a secondary part in the film, Ali’s turn as Shirley is more than equal to Mortensen’s Vallelonga, a nuanced effort that masks Shirley’s inner loneliness made all too clear by a revealing twist midway through the film.
The pair have a dynamic on-screen chemistry that elevates both performances and enhances the entire film as a whole beyond standard biopic fodder when either character is alone on screen.
It’s easy to forget, however, given how charming Mortensen and Ali are in their roles that “Green Book” lacks true emotional stakes because racism is sugarcoated in the film to such a degree where the actions of discriminatory Caucasians come across as simply unfortunate rather than harrowing or vigorous.
No more is this clear than in the film’s opening moments, where Tony’s wife Delores has hired a pair of African-American plumbers to fix their sink and offers glasses of water after the work is done.
When Tony sees this and throws the glasses away after the plumbers leave, Delores (played by a sorely underutilized Linda Cardenelli) digs them back out again and shakes her head as if to say, “Oh that Tony…,” marginalizing and softening the inherently hateful act.
The biggest flaw of an otherwise genuinely enjoyable film, “Green Book” comes across as a novice’s guide to America’s racial divide during the Civil Rights Era, teaching audiences that the titular “Green Book” was essentially an almanac of businesses safe for African-Americans to use while traveling and explaining racism in an almost self-congratulatory, “aren’t we glad Americans aren’t that divided anymore” manner.
In a year where a Marvel film probes racial identity in a modern context with “Black Panther” and Spike Lee frames “BlacKkKlansman” with the violence of last year’s Charlottesville race riot, this oversimplification sticks out like a sore thumb even more.
“Green Book” certainly has a great deal of potential this awards season, already being named the National Board of Review’s best film of the year. Mortensen and Ali carry the greatest responsibility for this acclaim and likely will rightfully earn Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations for their work.
A Best Picture nod also seems like a forgone conclusion at this point, though Farrelly’s chances at a direction nomination seem 50/50 at best.
Despite its problematic rose-colored outlook, “Green Book” still is one of the year’s best films thanks to two stellar acting efforts that make it worth seeking out in theaters.