The story goes that in 1963, Sam Cooke and his band were turned away from a hotel in Shreveport, La. Cooke, arguably the most important soul singer of the 20th Century, flew into a volcanic rage. “They won’t shoot me!” He fumed. “I’m Sam Cooke!” But they could have and would have, if cooler heads hadn’t prevailed. Green Book takes us back to that era, when the surface sheen of post-war Americana concealed ugly layers of archaic intolerance beneath. Its plot flips the Driving Miss Daisy dynamic, with a black man being chauffeured across the Deep South by a hot-tempered white man. If that makes Green Book sound like your basic road-trip/culture-clash movie, it is. It’s also a lot more.
Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a Bronx tough guy who bounces tuxedoed drunks out of the Copacabana. When the Copa goes on a hiatus for repairs, Tony finds the money getting lean. Cue Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a mannered piano virtuoso, who approaches Tony to drive him to gigs below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s an offer Tony can’t refuse, provided he can manage his own simmering racism. The two men venture through the nexus of the Civil Rights movement, where Shirley is forced to sleep and eat in places acknowledged in the Green Book–an insulting travel guide for blacks in the South.
Will these disparate souls gain a deeper respect for each other and better understanding of themselves? Of course. But Green Book wins points for addressing stereotypes by way of humor and irony: Tony introduces Shirley to fried chicken and Aretha Franklin (“Eh, you don’ even know da music of ya own people?!” He snaps.). Meanwhile, Shirley gives Tony a dose of Stravinsky and dresses his rudimentary love letters to home in flowery prose. Both Mortensen and Ali play up the comedy with perfect pitch. Tony’s colorful New Yawk-isms bounce off Shirley’s dry stoicism like bullets off Superman. The movie’s greatest strength is how it handles a deep, dark subject with a disarming sense of humor.
Some of this film’s comic timing stems from having Peter Farrelly at the helm–yup, that’s the same guy who gave us Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin. He infuses the film with a surprisingly relaxed tone that somehow never loses its sense of pacing. This is also a story of carefully-placed nostalgia: The soundtrack brims with bright, infectious selections from the period, and the cars and billboards (including an advert for Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall) are all recreated with meticulous attention. Contrasted with the casual racism the men encounter at every stop, Green Book truly makes this feel like the best of times and the worst of times.
The fight against bigotry and intolerance has been called the last battle of the American Civil War. Any battle that’s still being fought can still be lost, a fact the movie reminds us of when a black man isn’t allowed to eat in a restaurant where he is the headlining performer. If a change is truly gonna come, Green Book posits that it can come one man at a time. When complex issues tear us apart, maybe the simple things can bring us together. Common ground–embodied within JFK’s observation “that we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air”–can move us all a little closer together. With an intelligent script and strong, Oscar-worthy performances, Green Book does a lot to demonstrate that.