The Unfortunate Success of ‘Green Book’
The Golden Globe Awards broadcast, held on Jan. 6, saw the Hollywood Foreign Press Association honor the 2018 achievements of the film industry and adhered to most early forecasts for predicted winners in the film categories. Sure, there were the occasional surprises: “Bohemian Rhapsody”’s victory in the Best Drama category, or Glenn Close winning Best Actress in Drama for her performance in “The Wife” over the much more popular Lady Gaga of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born.” Still, as predicted, Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” won the top prize for comedy, and reaped wins for Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Screenplay.
“Green Book” follows a chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), rethinking his old racist values as he drives African-American pianist Don Shirley (Ali) on tour through the Jim Crow South. The film is widely regarded as a crowd-pleaser, having won the People’s Choice Award upon its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, with the good word-of-mouth translating to its Globes wins a few weeks ago. Upon accepting the award for Best Comedy, Farrelly pointed to the story of “Green Book” as an example of how we can overcome the social struggles of the world we live in, telling the audience, “all we have to do is talk and to not judge people by their differences, but to look for what we have in common.”
Farrelly’s sentiment is, at best, only excellent in the sense that it perfectly embodies his overly simple, flawed outlook on the current political climate that drove the direction in which he takes his film. Only a mind like Farrelly’s, which is most famous for conceiving films the like of “Dumb and Dumber” and “Shallow Hal,” could possibly reconcile “crowd-pleaser” and “racism” into a finished product. One scene early in “Green Book” features Vallelonga goading a resistant Don Shirley into eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. “I’ve never had fried chicken in my life,” Shirley tells Tony, who replies, “Your people loved the fried chicken.” Here, Tony’s obviously racist and skewed perspective is played for laughs. In the next scene, Shirley suddenly enjoys the chicken, and the moment is played up as one of coexistence, as the men laugh together, rewarding Tony’s racist behavior with validation.
With its ideological shortcomings in mind, is “Green Book” a poorly made film? Quite the contrary — it is rather well made, and elicits its desired response. The jokes land, the performances are strong and the plot moves nicely. However, the implications of the resulting product are troubling, as they convey the sense that the ideology of Tony, and by extension, the ideology of the 1960s South, can be rationalized if, as Farrelly said, we “look for what we have in common.” In that vein, the fact that a movie such as Farrelly’s has become so relevant in the awards conversation is disturbing. Progressive contenders, such as “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman,” are falling to the sidelines at “Green Book”’s expense. And as a “Green Book” Best Picture victory at the upcoming Academy Awards grows more and more imminent, perhaps it is time we question the wave of change that Hollywood has touted throughout this awards season.