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Tuesday, February 26, 2019


(Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip & Mahershala Ali as Dr Don Shirley)

That this conspicuously old-fashioned liberal movie won the best picture Oscar is as bemusing as the 1989 win for Driving Miss Daisy. (Review by Patrick Compton - 6/10)

It’s not surprising that Spike Lee stormed out of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday when the best picture award was announced.

With the best will in the world, Green Book simply doesn’t match up in quality to Roma, Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman and The Favourite, to name but three of its competitors. And its politics are thoroughly out of sync with 21st Century America.

Yes, it does contain two excellent performances from Mahershala Ali as a black touring musician in the Deep South in 1962 and Viggo Mortensen as his white chauffeur/protector at a time when rigid racial attitudes in states below the Mason-Dixon line hadn’t relaxed appreciably from the end of the civil war. Their characters are supposedly based on a real-life friendship.

But the film is so retro. It’s glib, liberal values hark back to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and for much of the time the movie is an exercise in ticking off a series of obvious boxes.

The movie is written and directed by Peter Farrelly, previously known for crude comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary; one has to accept, I suppose, that Green Book is at least a step up in ambition.

The film’s title refers to a green reference book (a kind of Rough Guide to the racist south) that helps black travellers avoid making embarrassing mistakes by entering certain bars, hotels and restaurants where they were not allowed.

The movie’s theme is an exercise in peeling the onion of the two men’s characters. Initially, and for much of the movie, they seem profoundly different. Tony Lip (Mortensen), an Italian-American nightclub bouncer with the bluest of blue collars and a crude and perpetual eater, begins the film by throwing away two glasses used by black carpenters who have been given something to drink by his wife after working in his house.

By contrast, Dr Don Shirley, a classically trained black musician, is a reserved, fastidious and cultured intellectual who is touring with his musical trio, giving concerts for rich white culture vultures in the former confederacy. They are happy to pay money to see him play his Steinway piano, but less inclined to let him use the regular toilet.

Ali’s performance is especially impressive in that he manages to make a great deal more of his kingly albeit quietly tormented persona, than the script allows.

In general, this is not a film of delicate nuances although some may point out that it’s Driving Miss Daisy in reverse. And there is a scene, late in the film, when their car stops next to a field where a group of African-Americans are toiling. The elegantly besuited Shirley and the peasants simply gawp at each other across the fence, suggesting that class and education are at least as important a divide in the US as simple skin colour.

One reason for some of the hostility towards the film is its hackneyed perspective. Rather like Cry Freedom, in which Donald Woods rather than Steve Biko is the real hero, the story is told from the point of view of Tony, who comes over as just the sort of fellow the unworldly Shirley needs when the going gets tough.

Green Book is a road movie and the film features a series of vignettes along the way in which we become wearisomely acquainted with racist cops, restaurant managers, promoters and drunks in bars.

Of course, the film is not just about our white hero. There is an attempt to balance the ledger as Shirley teaches Lip to write glowing love letters home to his wife.

Even if you accept that this film’s heart is in the right place, and that we care for both the well-acted main characters, there is something tired and obvious about this film that seems 50 years out of date. The top award is all a bit of a puzzle when you consider that the Academy got so much else right this year.

In the meantime, if you want to see high-pedigree movies about race in the US, check out Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), or, more recently, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).

Green Book is showing in multiple cinemas in Durban. - Patrick Compton