In the movie world, the presence of racial prejudice in film is not an uncommon thread. But sitting alone in a dark theater, entrapped by the bright screen, the struggle displayed in Green Book is not presented as yet another Civil Rights battle. Rather, it is a sense of determination and strength, both quiet and loud, that captivates the audience most.
Green Book takes place in the 1960s Deep South, where the racial stereotypes of black and white permeated the very structure of everyday life. Based on a true story, the movie follows the journey of pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).
Director Peter Farrelly takes movie lovers on an eloquent, racially charged trip back in time as he explores the complex world of societal expectations, family and friendship in Green Book. Farrelly — who has directed comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself and Irene and The Heartbreak Kid — takes a sharp turn away from lighthearted cinema in the more serious Green Book. Despite the thoughtful premise of the film, Farrelly still brings out his comedic roots with the sharp-witted, sarcastic humor throughout the movie.
The poignant, melancholy mood of the film alternates with moments of a smooth, jazz-like cadence into the colorful vibrance displayed. The alternation of the uncertain atmosphere of the Deep South and Tony’s rich Italian home life in New York gives viewers both a sense of normalcy and a glimpse into the complex world of Shirley.
The socioeconomic role reversal of Shirley and Tony is an interesting concept that is developed in the film. Instead of the poor black man and the rich white man, it is the prim and proper Shirley who holds the financial upper hand to the fast-talking Tony.
In the film, Ali crafts the image of a brilliant but lonesome musician like a painting. His portrayal of Shirely was built on many layers, the forefront being his intelligent, carefully enunciated musician appearance. But what stood out most was Ali’s portrayal of Shirley’s endeavor to “change people's hearts” through his music while simultaneously struggling with his identity as a closeted gay black musician in a white man's world.
The deeply emotional turmoil internalized by Shirley and shown through Ali is gradually revealed in his developing friendship with Tony. By the end of the movie, he comes out of his tour a new man, more confident in an uncertain world of racism.
Similarly, Tony — played by Lord of the Rings star Mortensen — was sketched as a hardworking, stubborn and violence-prone father looking to support his family. Mortensen originally displays Tony as a simple, brutish man who solves all his problems with his fists and “bulls--tting.”
But as the film goes on, it is clear that Tony adores his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), writing to her on the road even though he has terrible grammar. Shirley actually co-writes some of the letters, sending romantic notes back to Dolores and bringing the two men even closer.
Mortensen takes Tony’s stubbornness and ignorance and turns him into a man who is steadily learning to understand Shirley’s world. Like Shirley, Tony is struggling to find his place in the world.
In the continuance of the film, it is Tony’s talkative, blunt personality that first begins to break down Shirley's walls and shows him how to stand his ground, as aptly put in the quote: “The world is full of lonely people too scared to make the first move.”
Equivalently, it is Shirley’s genteel hand that steadies Tony and teaches him that violence is not always the answer.
Throughout the film, the odd, slightly confusing friendship between Shirley and Tony is a constant source of enlightenment and laughter to both the viewers and the characters. As the film develops and flourishes, with it the love of the film is born.
Green Book won Best Screenplay and Best Motion Picture, Drama in this year’s Golden Globes, and rightly so. The film is a beautiful, powerful statement that takes an overused theme like racism and revives it into a vivid, accurate retelling of an unlikely partnership turned everlasting bond between two opposite men from opposite worlds.