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Why Racial Inequality in “Green Book” Resonates So Deeply Today

The Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen drama set in 1962 follows a life-altering road trip.

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Let’s just get this straight: Green Book is not Driving Miss Daisy with dudes.

For the record, the new movie does have two humans, one black, one white. One is behind the steering wheel and the other sits in the backseat calling the shots. But let’s not get carried away. It’s a true story. These are real people with Wikipedia pages (although playwright Alfred Uhry’s feisty Jewish granny did inspire the original Daisy).

The film, out Nov. 16, describes an actual situation when simply traveling for African Americans was so fraught with danger that a special publication that gives the movie its title was published yearly. The book told them where to lodge without fear of getting lynched.

That’s not something for the more delicate Daisy. The new drama also inverts the usual relationship between blacks and whites in the movies. Here, it’s the African American who has the status and the position – and it is the white man who is and remains the servant thus reversing the usual racial role-playing that Hollywood typically endorses.

The story, set 56 years ago, mirrors racial inequality that endures to this day despite the election of an African American president. While black performers lead the music industry and create the soundtrack of all our lives, hate crimes continue and escalate. The ceaseless tide of cop-on-black-male violence, the mass incarceration of black men held with cash bail while white collar criminals lounge with ankle bracelets, the confrontations when Confederate statues topple, and the conflicts of race and inequality stirred by violence in America continues.

And that’s why, in the national chaos and confusion, Peter Farrelly’s movie about reconciliation and hard-won mutual understanding resonates. Green Book immortalizes Italian bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) – who bond for a lifetime friendship while touring the segregated South during the winter of 1962.

Lip and Shirley are both Yankees. Both have secretive sides and ample biases. Both are attractive, likable – but can be crotchety. Both have broken bits that rub against each other causing friction as much as their differences in skin color and education separate them.

Since it’s directed by Farrelly, one might as well dismiss it as an integrated Dumb and Dumber – but that says more about our reductionism than the film on the screen. It’s less broad than his previous comedies but it doesn’t fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously. Or too sentimentally. While Farrelly provides the vehicle, the engine is the star power and talent of the Oscar-winning Ali and Oscar-nominated Mortensen. Together, they combust!

Mortensen is nominally the lead because he opens the movie with a rollicking and violent period vignette in the mobbed up nightclub where Tony Lip keeps the peace (with a side bet on lining his own pockets). Farrelly, known for his many comedies with his brother Bobby, nails the timing from beat one.

True to form, so does Mortensen. He digs down very deep into this working class dad who’ll eat more hot dogs than the other guy if that’s what he has to do to keep food on his family’s table. He’s rooted in the Bronx’s Italian community. He’s a character not a caricature – and his behavior after two black plumbers show up to fix his pipes makes clear that he’s no saint.

Tony Lip is not Mortensen by another name. This is a committed actor giving the character his all — as usual. Whether he’s playing fantasy hero Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises or Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, this hard-researching actor always strives for authenticity. He’s funny. He’s charming. He’s passionate. And, while he’s betting the angles and clearly loves his family, the jury’s out on whether he can see past his biases to view the man in full that is the pianist Shirley.

And that’s a crucial point here: the individual desire to be seen and the challenge to see others with an open heart, without prejudice.

Ali has a matching charisma in what is the relatively quieter role. For me, he is Moonlight, the movie for which he won a best supporting actor Oscar. And, like Mortensen, as an actor he is integrity personified. Both are physical adepts.  

As brash as Tony from the Bronx is, Shirley is hidden, layered, glancing. He cannot afford to wear his heart on his tailored sleeve. That this concert musician lives alone in an ivory tower above Carnegie Hall surrounded by antiquities and seated on nothing less than a throne speaks both to his artistic achievement and his profound loneliness as an African American prodigy denied his due in the world of Classical Music.

And as an outsider – because of his race, because of his talent and its demands, because of who he loves – he walks alone (and sits in the back alone). He demands respect because it wouldn’t be freely given. And so he drinks fine whiskey, and his carefully constructed persona cracks. When, as the honored guest at a Southern mansion, the host insists he use the outhouse – it is almost too much and, yet, even his response is dignified. Ali makes the audience feel the weight of that dignity, the forced and horrible restraint to remain “refined,” to be the house slave even as the 1960s begin to swing.

Together, Mortensen and Ali bring out their characters’ integrity, humor and heartbreak – even if sometimes the jokes are about chicken bones and Kentucky Fried. And audiences will respond, as they did at the Toronto International Film Festival when it won the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award over contenders A Star is Born and If Beale Street Could Talk.

Dismissing Green Book as not cool enough for contemporary viewers underestimates the hunger of movie audiences to connect with what they see on screen and to experience catharsis. Watching it in Toronto, the movie lifted up the audience, entertaining and taking them on a road trip like no other. It earned its laughs, its tears and its communal sigh of relief: this is why we come to the movie theaters together.