On November 6th 2018, I attended the French premiere of Green Book in Paris in the presence of Viggo Mortensen, who plays the main character Tony Lip. Directed by Peter Farrelly (There’s something about Mary, Dumb and Dumber), Green Book was awarded the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and won three Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture in a Musical or a Comedy. But Green Book is not just a comedy. Alongside its witty lines, Farrelly integrates some of his comedic skills into the film, and the dialogue in Green Book unravels with a complex and ambivalent significance.
The film tackles a historically painful subject based on a true story. It is 1962 in New York City, and the Italian bouncer Tony “Lip” (Viggo Mortensen) is looking for a new job after the casino where he works closes for renovations. Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned Black pianist, offers him the position of chauffeur for his tour in the Deep South. Despite Tony’s deeply ingrained racism, he accepts the job, and their journey begins.
The tour is punctuated predictably by scenes of segregation and the racist treatment of Don Shirley. The green book of the film’s title is itself a guide for black people on the motels and restaurants they can visit when they travel to the southern states. This green book becomes the map Tony follows, transforming the journey into one that Tony, as a white person, would otherwise never have to undertake. Each step on such a journey would never require much forethought from a white traveller, while every step is an endeavour for Don Shirley. By juxtaposing Tony’s freedom of choice and unawareness of it with Don Shirley’s resignation and lack of agency, the film delineates the huge divide a person’s skin colour can cause.
Green Book is not so much about 1960s racism in the southern states as it is about the mutual education of Don Shirley and Tony. It does not turn its characters into clichés, though it might appear so at first glance: Don Shirley’s apartment in New York is furnished with African objects. He is the typically tall, long-fingered and gracious pianist. By contrast, Tony Lip is the Italian pasta-lover whose distinguishing ability is to command respect with his fists. But as the film unravels, we learn to identify with them, because both have their own complexities and contradictions. Don Shirley, the aloof, eloquent man starts to unveil his inner sufferings and his in-betweenness. As he confides in Tony, he is neither white enough to be accepted as a fellow human being where he goes to perform, nor financially marginalized enough to belong to the class of black people.
Don Shirley’s sense of non-belonging is especially well-depicted in a short, intense scene where his homosexuality is exposed: he is found in a public bathroom with a white man by two policemen. Tony arrives after the arrest and finds the two prostrated men handcuffed. The high-angle shot highlights Don Shirley’s suddenly demeaned position. It also adds a critical perspective to Tony’s point of view by representing the often unconscious position of a vast group of white, straight viewers.
While Don Shirley wrestles with his in-betweenness, Green Book examines Tony’s gradual awareness and rejection of his racism and probable homophobia. His trip with Don Shirley teaches him tolerance and how to discard his overbearing virility. This particularly shows in his correspondence with his family: thanks to Don Shirley, he masters eloquence and develops a poetic verve in writing letters to his wife. At first penning down his surroundings or physical experiences (like how much food he can eat — a metaphor for the stereotypical representation of masculine prowess that runs throughout the film), his subject matter gradually evolves towards a personal and emotional manifestation of care for his family.
Like most road-trip films, Green Book uses the theme of the journey literally as well as metaphorically. It is not a travel to, but a travel through. It is not the outcome of the journey that is important, but its process, enabling the personal development of the characters. The film achieves the perfect, subtle emotional balance of making us laugh immediately before harrowing moments of poignancy. It shifts from pathos to comedy without fully falling into either. Until the end, Green Book follows this thin line without tripping, just as Don Shirley plays the piano, from blues to Chopin, without ever faltering.