Thursday, December 20, 2018

My Look at GREEN BOOK

GREEN BOOK is a road movie. In a road movie, be it a comedy or a drama, characters will be tested. They will learn something about each other, about themselves and about life.  That goes for the characters skipping down the Yellow Brick Road in THE WIZARD OF OZ or the two friends whose road trip takes a serious turn causing them to flee the police in THELMA AND LOUISE.  In GREEN BOOK, a classical pianist in New York City has booked a series of recital dates in the Deep South. It's the early 1960s. He's black, gay and cultured. He needs a driver to get him safely to his concert dates in the segregated and dangerous Jim Crow South. He hires a racist motor-mouthed Italian from The Bronx who's hooked up to some wise guys.  Twenty minutes into this film, you know it'll have a happy ending, a good retro soundtrack and some figures who are more stereotypes than real people. What GREEN BOOK does best of all is showcase what excellent character actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are.
This film was inspired by a true story.  The two lead actors play men who really existed.  I didn't know anything about Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, before I saw the film. I went to biography.com and read about him. Wow. He was a prodigy in his boyhood. When he was 18, he made his concert debut with the Boston Pops.  In his 20s, his skills were highly praised by Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington. He knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Harry Belafonte. None of this do we find out during the well-acted GREEN BOOK action.

GREEN BOOK was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly. He's a popular director who has made a major lane change with this road movie.  His previous films include:

DUMB AND DUMBER
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
SHALLOW HAL
THE HEARTBREAK KID (2007 remake)
THE THREE STOOGES
DUMB AND DUMBER TO (sequel).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with an actor or director determined to do more challenging work. But there's something about Peter Farrelly's new film that feels like a calculated Hollywood move to gain artistic respect -- and some Oscar buzz -- while also seeming to be suddenly "woke" in this age of Black Lives Matter.

I had a local live cable show in New York City back in 1998.  On one show, I had a group of black and white, male and female guests. We talked about new movies. None of the folks was a film critic. One guest comment made was that Mary in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY was a sweetly clueless young woman who could have been played an by actress of color. It was that kind of a role. Look at the list of Peter Farrelly movies I listed. I cannot think of an actor of color having a lead role in any of his films.  Jennifer Hudson had a supporting role in THE THREE STOOGES as a nun. Sofia Vergara also had a supporting role.

GREEN BOOK gave me the feeling that Peter Farrelly wants to trumpet the fact that he's now considering actors of color for lead roles in his movies because, well, did you see the reviews and box office for STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON? Black talent is marketable after all! GREEN BOOK is a smooth ride with predictable potholes, detours and cultural collisions. It's basically a slick 1970s made-for-TV movie produced for mainstream theatrical success.  The gay element is timidly entered, like someone sticking the tip of a finger into bathtub water to see if it's too hot.  It's as if it was a TV production that wanted to let you know gay activity existed but it didn't want to delve into the issue for fear of losing a homophobic network sponsor. Director/writer Farrelly should not have been so pusillanimous in acknowledging the black musician's gayness. Addressing it squarely would've added more muscle to the storyline and made him the double outsider that he was in areas of race and sexual orientation. By the way, Hollywood needs to come up with a strong biopic screenplay about the late, great Bayard Rustin. Rustin was black and gay and the top advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The brilliant singer/activist was called "the architect of the March on Washington."  He was also called "Brother Outsider" because he was black and gay. Get that screenplay done. Give the Bayard Rustin role to Mahershala Ali.

I've read the problems that black film critics have had with GREEN BOOK. Now that I've seen it, I understand their criticisms. Black history drives the story yet it's glossed over.  The racist white driver, Tony Lip, who will become lovable by the end of the story, is the lead character and the black character literally takes a back seat to the far less accomplished and articulate white man.
It's been written that a theme of Peter Farrelly films is to depict able-bodied figures as knuckleheads (DUMB AND DUMBER) while depicting disabled characters as smarter and gifted (SHALLOW HAL and the conjoined twins in STUCK ON YOU). You can see that at play in GREEN BOOK with its portraying being black and articulate as the social disability in 1962 America.

There are screenplay elements of GREEN BOOK that irked me because it rehashed tired images of black people we've seen in TV and films of the past. The main one being that if you're an educated and cultured African-American male, you're not really black. You're an oddity. To show you the extent of Tony Lip's racism, there's scene early in the film where two black laborers are working in his kitchen. His wife offers them each a glass of water. When they leave, Tony throws the glasses into the trash because two black men had their lips on them.

But when he's on the road driving Dr. Shirley, he turns on the radio and praises the work of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin. He introduces the black classical and jazz pianist to the music of his own people.  Later, he introduces the black man to the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, the racist man is now giving the acclaimed black artist lessons in how to be really black while the gay black artist teaches him how to write eloquent love letters home to his wife. Like something you'd see on QUEER EYE with the Queer Eye host pushing a product line of stationery and designer pens.

I was also irked by the portrayal of Italian-Americans.  If I see one more movie portray Italian New York males as "Bada Boom, Bada Bing"-type guys who eat mountain-sized portions of pasta, are enchanted by mobsters and have low IQs ("Michelangelo...he painted the Sixteen Chapel"), I'm going to scream. The way Tony ate in GREEN BOOK, I thought he was going to die of a heart attack before they made the trip back to New York.
My parents had a copy of the Green Book for Negro Motorists. We drove cross-country when I was a little boy. The Green Book was essential and in publication for decades. It was especially helpful for travelers who had to motor through the segregated South where restrooms, drinking fountains and diners were marked "Whites Only," another historical fact ignored in Farrelly's movie. Oscar winner Sidney Poitier could not get a hotel room down South in 1966 while shooting IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT because he was black. Yaphet Kotto could not get hotel room in 1969 while down South shooting William Wyler's THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES because he was black. The Green Book is briefly referred to in the movie. We never get a sense of its national importance and historical significance to African-Americans just like we never get full sense of Dr. Shirley's personal and occupational life. We know more about Tony the driver.

And there's the usual angle Hollywood pulls out when it wants to make a point about racism in America -- it's always worse Down South and it's so bad that any Northern racist who visits there will suddenly become liberal and lovable when face-to-face with redneck racist ignorance. You're beguiled into thinking that racism at its worst is solely a Southern import...like cotton and Mint Juleps.

It's time Hollywood changed that.  I'm sure director/screenwriter Peter Farrelly has met with many Hollywood agents in his time.  Did he ever see a black Hollywood agent who handled top talent? How many black actors were submitted to audition for lead roles in his comedies?  Did he ever consider any?  Has he ever lived with a black roommate?  Has he spent a lot of time with black friends in their neighborhoods? Does he think that, racially, the playing field is level in Hollywood?

The son of the movie's late driver, Tony Lip, contributed memories from his dad to the GREEN BOOK screenplay. After the film was released, it was discovered that musician Don Shirley has surviving relatives, none of whom was contacted during the writing and making of this movie.  Mahershala Ali didn't even know about the relatives. He has apologized to them and, in his apology, told them he was playing the material given to him. I don't fault him at all. In the movie, we learn that Don has a brother. Tony finds out that Don and his brother are estranged. We never find out why. We assume maybe because Don is gay. The surviving relatives came forward to black press and NPR with the revelation that Don had three brothers and they all kept in touch frequently.

Mahershala Ali adds another distinct and vivid portrayal to his list of credits. His posture, his carriage, his tone of voice and his reserve add depth to his characterization. He also catches the constant racial humiliation and emotional dissonance of the artist. It's all right behind the eyes. He has worked up from the slave roots of his American history yet he's made to feel like an oddity because of that. He is still treated like a second class citizen whereas Tony is not. There's a scene in which all of Don's frustration, anger, and hurt come pouring out when he and Tony are outside at night in the rain after an ugly racial incident. That's a highpoint of the film. Mahershala Ali hits you in the heart in that scene.  As for Viggo Mortensen, it is stunning that he's the same actor who played the Russian tough guy in EASTERN PROMISES and Aragon in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. He packed on 40 pounds for the part. Mortensen has the showier role and works hard to make give you moments when Tony comes through as a real person and not a stock movie stereotype. Both actors are very good together. They lift the material. They make it seem deeper and fresher than it is.

Another real-life person is depicted in GREEN BOOK. The movie opens at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. Singer Bobby Rydell is a headliner. The next year, 1963, movie audiences would see him star opposite Ann-Margret in BYE BYE BIRDIE. As Rydell sings, a brutal fist fight breaks out at some front tables. Tony Lip is involved in the fight. I wonder if any entertainment reporter contacted Rydell to ask if that really happened.

GREEN BOOK is not a film to see for accurate and dimensional black history. It's a road movie, an "opposites attract" buddy movie designed to be a feel-good movie addressing one of America's biggest problems -- race -- in a way that makes the white guy the hero.  Not Tony Lip the driver. Peter Farrelly the director.







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