GREEN BOOK, US, 2018. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini. Directed by Peter Farrelly. 130 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language)
Green Book seems an indeterminate kind of title for what is quite a significant film.
In fact, as the screenplay explains, Green Book was the title of a guide for African-Americans travelling in the south, indicating the significance of segregation, hotels and restaurants where they would be welcome and those where they would not be welcome. Many audiences in the 21st-century, perhaps even in the United States, might be shocked to discover the existence and use of this book.
In the late 1950s, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis appeared in a landmark film about black-white relationships, The Defiant Ones, two prisoners, one black, one white, chained together as they try to escape prison. In some ways, Green Book could be seen as an equivalent of The Defiant Ones. They are not literally chained together, the black man and the white man, but there are bonds and there are bigotries that need to be broken.
The initial focus of the film is on Tony, an Italian-American working at the Copacabana club in New York City, keeping an eye on security, intervening as a bouncer to break up fights and kick out unwelcome guests when necessary. At home, he has a loving wife and family. He also has a lot of Italian relatives and friends. They are eager to give him a job when the club closes down for several months of renovations. The next focus of the film is on Dr Shirley, who summons Tony for a job interview. Dr Shirley lives in rather lavish apartments, with all kinds of decor, even a throne chair, on top of Carnegie Hall. He is a talented musician. He is also black.
It is 1962.
We have glimpsed some bigotry on Tony’s part, putting some glasses used by black tradesmen in the rubbish bin. He is not immediately attracted to the job of driving Dr Shirley, being something like a servant. However, there is some insistence and he accepts the job.
So, this is the film of a journey, physically through some states in middle America and down to the South, the deepest south. It is also a journey of two men getting to know each other as persons, realising prejudices and limitations, learning how to overcome them, having to depend on each other, and beginning a friendship (which the final credits, with photos of the actual men, indicates lasted until their deaths in 2014). One of Tony’s sons wrote the screenplay for the film.
The performances are excellent. Viggo Mortensen is at his best as Tony, loud, chain-smoking, chewing fried chicken and advising Dr Shirley to chuck the bones out of the car window, not initially appreciating Dr Shirley’s talent. Mahershala Ali, who won his Oscar for Moonlight, is a regal-mannered, self-confidently arrogant, superior who sits in the back of the car (and reminders of a reverse of Driving Miss Daisy).
One of the strengths of the screenplay is the continued conversations between the two, as they drive through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky. And one wonders why Dr Shirley would be travelling America at this stage for performances, excellent as he is, receiving the warmth of the predominantly white audiences. As they venture into the South, there are more troubles and more segregation, more relying on the Green Book.
Dr Shirley is also a drinker, drinking alone, and, when he is arrested one evening, further revelation about him and his aloneness. The two are stopped by the police in Louisiana and are given very bigoted treatment, especially when Tony becomes violent, something that Dr Shirley has advised against. They finish up in jail, Dr Shirley allowed his phone call and, entertainingly as we might expect, his phone call is to Robert Kennedy!
And there is worse in Birmingham, Alabama, the seemingly-civilised manners that put prejudice into practice and the underlying dislike, even racial hatred. However, there is a very engaging sequence where Dr Shirley goes to a black club and wows the audience with his piano playing.
There are many fine touches throughout the film (including Tony trying to write letters to his loving wife, Linda Cardellini, and Dr Shirley taking over the inspiration and composition).
There is so much to enjoy in Green Book as well as so much about prejudice to reflect on.
eOne Released January 24th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.