Green Book is Driving Miss Daisy for the new generation, the kind of movie that transports viewers to the past so that a feel-good fantasy about race becomes an augmented reality. It’s the kind of endeavor that is not interested in the present, because the friction still exists, the tension still simmers, and addressing this interracial dynamic would be too confrontational.
Instead it opts for a time machine narrative, securing an insular time and space in which again a white person is illuminated by his black friend, and the viewers can go back home feeling optimistic about the racial progress their great country has made. Every struggle has been bypassed, in a cutesy move of historical amnesia. It’s exactly how Bollywood treats the issue of caste. For the dream merchants, it’s all about entertainment.
The tagline of the movie is “based on a true friendship”, and the movie itself charts the road trip that black classical/jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) took with his Italian-American chauffer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) way back in1962.
But this not a play of equals. We don’t meet Don for the first 15 minutes. Instead, we learn about Tony who is a tough guy working at a nightclub. He is also a loving family man who junks drinking glasses because a couple of black repairmen working in the family kitchen drank from them.
When he meets Don, it’s clear what vantage point the film is taking. Don hires Tony for a concert tour through the South, and the film sprinkles carefully chosen historical details during the road trip, so that none of them come in between the tale of this friendship. In other words, a white man overcomes his prejudices, and makes his first black friend.
The title of the film refers to an actual publication, a travel guide book of safe havens for black folks during the Jim Crow era. The film flips the stereotype of black and white, by pitting a refined upper class black man against a crude-mouthed white man who is struggling to make ends meet. Throughout their journey, Tony tries to teach Don about the black culture, and Don in turn imparts etiquette, diction and a swing in language.
The movie never leaves Tony. It’s his eyes through which we learn about Don, his sophistication, his genius, and above all, his loneliness.
It’s not surprising since the film is written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly (of the Farrelly brothers). Unlike the raw, unsettling and unnerving films by black filmmakers, this is black experience minus the wrinkles. Don exists only for Tony to find his humanity.
In a stirring scene,Don laments that he is ‘not black enough, not white enough, and not man enough’. (Don’s family has severely objected to this portrait). He is gay, and he is far removed from his blackness or his people.
Don is neutered in such a way that Tony is required everywhere to not only guard and aid him, but also to love him which includes a crash course in discovering the joys of eating fried chicken with not the slightest acknowledgement of the history of that food and what it insinuates.
Peter Farrelly directs the movie with casual classicism, telling non-white people that whatever money you have, you can’t possibly buy the narrative drive in his film. In the white man’s pilgrimage, the black man is always the cog, never the wheel.
The film’s calculation of warm-hearted humour manages to make the movie swim along because the two lead performances play off each other like the oddest couple in charming chemistry. Mortensen’s broad strokes receives much help from the script, but Ali despite anchoring his character into melancholy gets soiled by the score that wishes to shoehorn our feelings for his character in only one direction.
Now that Green Book has won the Oscar for Best Picture, we know the bait worked for the Academy, and in turn reflecting America at large, that is yet to come to terms with the inconvenient truth. The racial struggle is far from over, but everyone loves an utopia in which people change their views on race, without confronting their inherent racist ideas that continue to exist. Don might have Miss Daisy’s seat, but he still has no power.
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)
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