Writers: Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga
Director: Peter Farrelly
There is a restaurant in Amsterdam that serves Battered Oreo, with chocolate ice-cream and bits of normal Oreo on the side. To the uninitiated, ‘Battered’ refers to something being coated in batter and then deep fried, you may have heard the hackiest of stand-ups use the idea of Battered Mars Bars as a shortcut to discussing Scottish culture. I have eaten this dessert twice, and both times have left me with a similar feeling of sweet satisfaction and stomach contorting queasiness. While watching Green Book, the surprise and controversial Academy Award winner, I felt a similar thing as I gazed sometimes in horror, but sometimes with a genuine smile, at this baffling buddy-cop(ish)/racial history mash-up of a film.
Directed by Peter Farrelly, of Dumb and Dumber fame, with a screenplay co-written by himself, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book is the story of renowned pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) 1962 tour of the American South. Given the awkward fact that Don is black, and the American South at the time was a bit like being a Turkey at Christmas, only a thousand times worse for people of colour, he is going to need some help along way. In steps Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Vigo Mortenson), a recently unemployed New York bodyguard who is hired by Don as a driver and protective muscle.
Tony is either a pathological racist or a loveable unreconstructed un-PC Alf Garnett figure. The film, particularly in the first act, can’t decide which one he is. In the opening sequences, we see Tony throw away cups used by two black workmen labouring in his house, and Farrelly uses this an early characterization of Tony. He is a man so unequivocally opposed to people of colour, he will not use the same utensils as them. Which makes it all the stranger when he goes for a job interview in which he would be the driver for the purple blooded, aristocratic Don and doesn’t walk out in disgust. Would a man so intuitively revolted by black people, really agree so readily to be Don’s subordinate?
As Green Book is unashamedly presented as a feel-good film, Tony’s genuine racism cannot last for long and instead morphs into racial insensitivity. So we see scenes in which Tony teaches Don how to eat fried chicken or explain what jazz music is. This is presented with a sitcom flair, but it falls rather flat, with the jazz music scene in particular, Farrelly is presenting the audience with cultural appropriation in real time. Tony presents jazz music, a black music especially in America during that period, to Don which he has never heard of, and then uses his knowledge of it to suggest he is more in tune with ‘black culture’ than Don is. Not only is Don’s experience of jazz music now filtered through a white person, that white person has now used his experience to downgrade Don’s experience, and renders himself more authentically ‘black.’ And the film presents these scenes as comic set-pieces, where the characters bond and their relationship is forged. The lack of self-awareness is simply staggering.
As the tour commences, Don inevitably runs into a truckload of bile and prejudice at the hands of the people who have hired him and the society at large. Whether being forced to eat separately to the white people who have paid to see him play, or not being allowed to try on a suit for fear a white man will try it on next. The American South is presented, largely, as a black hole of bigoted cruelty. The point of the film is, to a certain extent, that because Tony is experiencing these prejudicial encounters with Don, that they slowly chip away at his conditioned hostility and he begins to view people of colour as something approaching equal. At one point, a police officer pulls over their car and seems intent on humiliating both Tony and Don, and calls Tony ‘half a nigger.’ To which Tony responds in the only way he knows with a swift one to the jaw. This is presented as pivotal by Farrelly, a Damascus moment where Tony experiences life as a member of the oppressed. But in actuality, Farrelly is showcasing a kind of inverse Uplift Suasion, where instead of a high achieving person of colour changing a racist mind via the sheer will of their achievement, a white person literally has to be called a ‘nigger’ before they begin to contemplate racial equality.
All this points to a rather monstrous film, a reverse Driving Mrs. Daisy without the benefit of it being 1989 and a ‘different time’. However, the performances of both Mortenson and Ali and wonderful, filled with empathy and nuance, even when the material is lacking. Ali is all regality and vulnerability masquerading as high-minded snobbery. You can feel his desperation and loneliness, a man with an Elephant tusk in his living room but without two friends to rub into a third. His pomposity is infectious because we know it masks a very intense sense of isolation. Mortenson is also in inspired form, taking a character that you could dislike and recontextualizes him as human and flawed. Who could help but smile at a man in his boxers picking up a whole pizza, folding it in half and then eating it practically whole? These are towering performances in a film that perhaps doesn’t deserve them.
Green Book is a film in which you watch with a grimace and a queasy stomach, a feeling of something not quite right. There’s a scene in which their car breaks down, and Tony and Don get out to fix it. They happen to break down next a field in which black men, in barely-there matching cotton uniforms, are tilling. They stop to look at Don in his impeccable (and most likely expensive) suit and look in over in what might be shock, or perhaps envy. Don looks back at them, a wistful but sorrowful look in his eye. It feels insanely uncomfortable and that’s because it is. It’s a scene that either demonstrates that Don should be happy with his lot and be thankful he isn’t working the field or to create a synergy between them, that Don and the field workers are still experiencing the same endemically racist America. In whichever direction it doesn’t work, it is a horrific misjudgment and is in essence the film in microcosm; something that appears to come from a empathetic place but in reality misses its point by a million miles to become insanely insensitve.