“Green Book stuns with its gleeful swan dive into gender roles, complete with petite women stuffed into hourglass corsets and a leading lady we never see outside the kitchen.”
Title: Green Book (2018)
Director: Peter Farrelly 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Peter Farrelly 👨🏼🇺🇸, Brian Hayes Currie 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Nick Vallelonga 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I’m going to put this right up top: I enjoyed Green Book and I can see why the awards circuit has been so kind to it. After all, director Peter Farrelly has had time to learn what makes movies tick. Between classic hits like Dumb and Dumber (1994) or There’s Something About Mary (1998), he’s been entertaining general audiences for decades.
This expertise pumps through Green Book like oxygenated blood, producing a polished film that pushes the buttons of human emotion like a morphine drip. The highs are there when you want them, and the lows are never so low as to be uncomfortable. This doesn’t make for a poignant work, but who could say no to a film about kindness and compassion?
Unfortunately, a peek beneath the hood shows some hypocrisy. Nick Vallelonga, the real-life son of Green Book’s lead protagonist, insists that “everything in the film is true.” Yet the actual relatives of Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) call it a “symphony of lies.”
This shaky foundation greatly erodes the film’s effectiveness. What’s the point of singing kumbaya if the community you’re trying to bond with hears a totally different—and discordant—song?
Then again, nobody is watching Green Book to bridge any real societal gaps or to challenge themselves. With such low-bar goals, I can’t in good faith score it higher than stories that have something new to say. A feel-good drug that capitalizes on making white audiences feel better about our country’s anti-Blackness simply isn’t going to stand the test of time. It isn’t even working now, unless you’ve willfully plugged your ears from the film’s well-earned controversies.
Green Book stuns with its gleeful swan dive into gender roles, complete with petite women stuffed into hourglass corsets, swooning wives who cluck over their husbands, and a leading lady we never see outside the kitchen.
Linda Cardellini receives this distinct dishonor as Dolores, the wife of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), and I hope she got a fat check with a lot of zeroes to make this worth her time. Especially demoralizing is the thought that Cardellini’s breakout role as a rebellious, stereotype-breaking lead in cult hit Freaks and Geeks, which debuted 20 years ago, was legions more complex.
Other than Dolores, who never even speaks to another woman except to read love letters from Tony aloud to a giggling group of girlfriends, women pretty much don’t exist in Green Book. Other supporting men—burly and pot-bellied men playing shady Mafioso or racist venue owners—hold multitudes more depth than their arm candy wives.
In short, Farrelly’s movie feels like a middle finger to real women living in the present day. Now excuse me, I have an itch to go burn one of my bras.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 8% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Green Book perpetuates a long Hollywood tradition of white filmmakers telling Black stories. Moreover, it warps this particular history of Dr. Don Shirley, an incredible musician and Black activist who literally gets relegated to the backseat of an Italian American everyman. The ensuing result paints Shirley as a queer victim, lonely and friendless and in one incident, the recipient of a gay hate crime where Tony swoops in to rescue him in its aftermath.
It’s grating to know that this wildly biased account of Shirley’s estrangement is being marketed as a true story, even as his brother Dr. Maurice Shirley says that Don was always in regular contact with their family and that his brother and Tony were never even friends. In his interview with Shadow and Act, Maurice laughs, “You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony! Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time.”
Even to humor Nick Vallelonga and to believe the hagiographic account of his father’s life, the fact remains that this is the version of Black and white relations that Hollywood investors have chosen to fund and champion—a project written and directed by white men. Even Mahershala Ali, who gives his usual, riveting performance, cannot single-handedly drag a retro work into the modern age.
“I don’t think anyone who made Green Book consciously set out on a mission to make white people feel smug and self-congratulatory about race relations, but that’s the end result of watching it.”
Deduction for LGBTQ: -0.50
While never confirmed, Shirley was believed to be gay and the inclusion of his sexuality would generally be positive in an onscreen portrayal of his story. That said, the way homosexuality in Green Book gets depicted as deviant, shown through the secrecy and shame of Shirley being found nude, bloodied, and handcuffed on the floor of a bathroom next to another naked, huddled man, shows a backwards vision of the “repercussions” of being gay in the ‘60s.
Regardless of its accuracy to history, onscreen homophobia has received an outsized platform in cinema. Where are the celebrations—or at least normalized acceptance—of queer icons and queer love? It’s 2019 now, not the ‘60s, and yet Farrelly and Vallelonga actively chose to present this tableau as a way of victimizing Shirley and positioning Tony as his savior who pays off the police to keep Shirley out of jail.
Green Book has no interest in examining life as a closeted gay Black pianist. Rather, it uses Shirley’s presumed sexuality as another opportunity to paint Tony as a progressive hero.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.00/5
If Green Book picks up more hardware at the Oscars later this month, I’m not going to be surprised. Hollywood has proven time and time again that they value navel-gazing validation, whether through self-referential works about Hollywood as with La La Land (2016) or Birdman (2014), or through simplistic hurrahs over how we’ve risen above racism seen in The Shape of Water (2017) or 12 Years a Slave (2013).
Green Book falls firmly into the latter category. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying movies that cater to its audiences, or even bending the truth to do so. But throw in complicating factors of systemic gatekeeping and the billion-dollar industry that accompanies it, and the end result is a self-perpetuating cycle of white narratives being valued over Black voices—of career opportunities and profits being made off the backs of marginalized communities, who see scant reward for their exposed traumas or hard-fought triumphs.
In the case of Green Book, Octavia Spencer and Kwame Parker do have credits as executive producers, a role that traditionally sees less involvement than day-to-day producers, but Ali is the only Black actor to feature significantly in a film about Shirley’s historic contributions. The rest of its beneficiaries—all of its producers, three executive producers, Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, the burnished legacy of his father Tony, and the majority of the supporting cast—comprise of white men.