By: Anna Bailey, senior reporter
When Green Book won Best Picture at the Oscars, I knew I had to sit through it. I expected to be entertained, but I also expected cliches. Everything I’d heard about the movie reminded me of Driving Miss Daisy or The Help—both excellent movies—but in 2019, it didn’t seem like anything new.
However, Green Book surprised me. While the plot was often predictable, the characters are complex and their histories and quirks are continuously being revealed. Tony, played by Viggo Mortensen, is a middle-aged Italian from the Bronx who needs work in order to support his wife and kids. He is hired by Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali: a black musician going on a concert tour in the deep south. The “Green Book” is a book that tells them which hotels and restaurants Dr. Shirley, being a black man, is allowed to enter. At the beginning of the movie, Tony is depicted as a kind, independent, proud man who is casually racist. Dr. Shirley is educated, straightforward, and undoubtedly high-maintenance.
But the movie is not a story of Tony repenting of his flagrant racism. He takes his job seriously, and, though he prides himself on being a “bullshit artist,” is an incredibly kind man. We discover instead that Tony has never associated the casual racism, his Italian community, or his stereotypes about black people with the segregation, Jim Crow laws, or violence of the South. This obvious racism shocks him, but the first time that it truly angers him is when he is insulted for working for Dr. Shirley. He is not a simple character—his pride, kindness, racism, and determination are all mixed together to make a complex man. I think Tony does change; at the end of the movie, he invites Dr. Shirley over for Christmas and scorns his family for their racials slurs. He has to see the connection between the racism of the Bronx, and the racism of the South, before his own actions can change.
Tony is not the only character who must grow. While undoubtedly a victim of scorn and discrimination—from whites for being black, and from blacks for being an educated classical musician—Dr. Shirley is not without fault. He is arrogant, fussy, and snobbish. He picks on Tony for his language and shuts down his curious questioning and well-meant advice. Though he shows courage in touring the South, he never puts up a fight against racism—until he meets Tony. He is isolated for being black, well educated, and gay, but he has also isolated himself.
The musical elements of the movie were delightful, but at times confusing. It is never quite clear what genre of music Dr. Shirley and his trio play, though he attempts to explain it. I did appreciate his passionate performance of Chopin’s “Winter Wind” on an old piano in a blues club, even if he only played a small part of it.
Green Book balances the heavy issues it broaches with constant humour. It isn’t slapstick or situational; instead, it is subtle and surprising, expressed in the dialogue between Tony and the Doc, or in their quirky personalities. Their interactions make up for some of the predictable moments in the movie—for example, when they walk into a suit shop that serves Tony, but not the Doc.
Though the movie clearly confronts racism, it does so by exploring its complexities. Neither Tony nor Dr. Shirley are perfect. Neither of them has a simple place in the world. Tony is snubbed for his background and his accent. Dr. Shirley struggles to connect with other black people. Though he is touring the south, he is not allowed to play what he really wants or to use the bathrooms of the people for whom he plays.
While driving, they are pulled over by cops twice. The first time, the police arrest them because Dr. Shirley is not allowed in the town past curfew. The second time, the cops are simply letting them know their tire is flat. This movie criticizes racism and discrimination by focusing on a single, complicated relationship, challenging cliches, and refusing to allow audiences to simplify these issues. In Green Book, even if you’re talking about piano keys, the world isn’t black and white.