Green Book is a film designed to win awards. At September’s Toronto International Film Festival, one screening garnered exultant praise from a crowd on its feet. After I took in the predominantly white audience’s reaction to the “feel-good” movie about a virtuosic black pianist (Mahershala Ali) touring the Deep South during the height of Jim Crow-era America with his white driver and pseudo-bodyguard (Viggo Mortensen), it seemed obvious that the film would win the festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award (which it did). My audience was enraptured, laughing heartily through every joke, including a questionable one that uses a racial slur against Chinese immigrants. The roaring standing ovation as the filmmakers walked on stage confirmed it – Toronto was sold.
The irony, of course, being that a feel-good film about race relations during one of America’s darkest periods is an inherently antithetical concept.
Director Peter Farrelly’s source material was based on the very real friendship between Dr. Don Shirley and Tony (Tony Lip) Vallelonga, but that doesn’t save his film from falling into the canon of preachy white-saviour movies that crop up every so often in American cinema. These films win audience awards and dominate the box office because they offer relief, and ease – appealing directly to white audiences who want to feel socially conscious without being challenged.
It’s why Green Book is currently on the lips of many more people than, for instance, George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U Give – another commercial film dealing with race in the United States, albeit in a more modern context, which tells an unsettling story that pushes the audience to scrutinize its own complicity.
Green Book aligns much more readily with The Blind Side, The Help and, most recently, Hidden Figures. All are based on real-life events involving black characters, and all centre on white-saviour heroes. In Green Book, it’s Tony, who unlearns the dominant racist ideology of the time period to see his black boss as just another person. He often physically saves Don from violence enacted by other white people. They grow closer as friends, but still there’s a disconnect between their worlds that the film itself isn’t interested in wrestling with.
Green Book takes place during an era of segregation in the Deep South, but is told entirely through a white lens. When Don isn’t permitted to use the bathroom at one of the lavish mansions he’s invited to play at – and instead told to use the outhouse for the black staff – Tony brazenly asks why he puts up with such discrimination. We never know so plainly what Don is thinking. Much of the film is told from the point of view of a white man witnessing obscene and overt racism for the first time. It’s a glimpse into the world of Don and those like him, but only through Tony’s eyes.
During the press run for Steve McQueen’s Widows at TIFF this year, Viola Davis told The New York Times that her only career regret was agreeing to star in The Help, the 2011 film about a young white woman in 1960s Mississippi who writes a book about the inner lives of the black maids who keep the community running. “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard," she said. "I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
Similarly, Green Book’s Don is a passive protagonist; we rarely get to know how he really feels about anything. This framing means crucial moments of depth are lost.
There is a tension bubbling beneath the surface of the film from the first moment Tony challenges Don’s blackness by calling himself “more black” for knowing a Little Richard song that Don had never heard of. The climax of this tension breaks when Don gets out of the car in the rain after being refused access to the bathroom at the mansion and he pleads, “If I’m not white enough and I’m not black enough, then what am I?”
The scene ends shortly after, the film satisfied that briefly bringing up the question of Don’s inner identity conflict is enough. Here was the opportunity to explore what it feels like to exist in a society that simultaneously accepts and rejects parts of your identity based on the colour of your skin. But fully exploring that concept would require Farrelly and his two white co-writers to centre Don in a way they hadn’t accomplished. The movie’s overall tone of levity above everything else prevents it from exploring anything too deeply – including Don’s struggle for belonging, as well as his queerness, which is never revisited after it’s first noted.
Green Book is not a “bad film," but it could have been so much more – and it’s yet another white-saviour film with misguided intentions that adds to the erasure of black peoples’ own agency throughout history.
We all need to be active viewers who question the cinema we consume – even when it’s a film that gets widespread, unchecked acclaim.