Whaleoil at the movies: Green Book

Too right!
A regular column by John Black.

The late great screen writer William Goldman held that there was only one unerring rule of the movie business ? ?nobody knows anything?. Something that comes closest to disproving this dictum is the near certain knowledge that the Academy Awards always reward movies about race. Driving Miss Daisy and more recently 12 years a slave and Moonlight all took the best picture Oscar. Green Book in being contrived to win such plaudits is every bit as cynical as Goldman?s one liner.

The Green Book is basically Driving Miss Daisy redux. This time it?s Viggo Mortensen?s Tony, an Italian American goomba at the wheel with Mahershala Ali?s Dr Don Shirley, a black pianist in the passenger seat. It?s based on real events when cultured uptight musician Shirley undertook a tour of the Deep South in 1962. In need of someone a bit ?handy? to protect him from the racist thuggery he is sure to encounter he hires the bouncer Tony as his driver. Tony starting out as a minor racist is transformed through their shared adventures into a major racist. Not really. He is transformed into a colour blind paragon of liberal virtues. He may even have started voting democrat.

This is an odd couple road movie which depends for its success on the performance of the two leads. They are both up to the task, their skill and charisma transcending the clumsiness of the script. Director and co-writer Peter Farrelly, perhaps desperate not to go down in cinematic history as the creator of the hair gel jizz scene in Something about Mary constructs an uber-anti-racism movie like he was assembling an IKEA coffee table.

Dr Don is a white person?s platonic ideal of what they think a black person should be. Unerringly polite, educated (the movie gives him three P.H.Ds that?s three more than the real Don Shirley had), even tempered and completely untainted by resentment. Tony is a caricature of pasta eating little Italy machismo. He doesn?t actually say ?forgedaboutit? but he does wave his arms around a lot and tell people not to ?break his balls?. He?s greedy, has terrible manners and dimwittedly misses out on all of Shirley?s sarcasm. When he complains because Shirley doesn?t like fried chicken or Chubby Checker, Shirley tells him, ?You have a very narrow assessment of me?. This could just as aptly describe the film?s treatment of Tony. In straining to make his anti-racism message clear, Farrelly has ended up trafficking in the type of stereotypes that delight genuine racists.

The plot is a series of ?teachable? moments ? Shirley being beaten up in a bar, Shirley being refused service in a restaurant – where racism is shown to be, wait for it, wrong, and racist white people are shown to be wait for it, A-grade arseholes. 

The ending is pure corn. Think the ending of Planes trains and Automobiles with Christmas replacing Thanksgiving.

What?s frustrating is the laziness of it all. Obvious films making obvious points about race relations. Where are the films exploring the more difficult aspects of race in America, such as the insane levels of illegitimacy and gun violence in the black community?

Too difficult.

Easier to play it safe and take another shot at white America. No doubt Farrelly will be rewarded come awards time. Lately the Oscars seem less like awards for artistic achievement and more like an exercise in American self-flagellation with Hollywood as the whip. Film makers are rewarded for treating the audience like idiots who need a constant cinematic ground-hog day of moral messaging to keep them from reverting to savagery.

As if nobody knows anything.