Although it was a little difficult to see our beloved Aragorn gain 130 pounds, Viggo Mortenson had me laughing out loud several times as an Italian blue-collar bodyguard / driver in last night’s Oscar winner for Best Picture Green Book. Following the win last night, criticisms immediately abounded, claiming Green Book was the “worst Best Picture winner since Crash in 2004,” with Spike Lee feeling slighted like he was court-side at Madison Square Garden when the referee made a bad call. Even the family members of the historical Dr. Don Shirley, the black classical pianist on whom the movie was based, called Green Book a “symphony of lies.” There then were the somewhat expected criticisms: reports of an oversimplified depiction of the complexity of Jim Crow segregation, accusations of “white savior” tropes, and even a claim that Green Book represents caricatures of past racism that allow white people to distance themselves from its ongoing reality. But criticisms aside, here’s why I loved Green Book:
It was a good movie. I don’t like that this needs to be said, but as Mahershala Ali said in a recent interview, while what constitutes an Oscar-worthy movie means something different than it meant in the 1980s or 90s, at the very least it needs to be a movie that people enjoy. Every great movie should be meaningful on some sort of deeper, moral level, but the main point of drama is to entertain. The script needs to hold together, the plot needs to have consistency, and the characters need to be meaningful and relatable. Green Book had all these things, but unlike other nominees, the writers kept in mind their audience, who did not come to the theater primarily to be preached at but to be entertained.
At the heart of every great movie is an incredible friendship. Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, is a classical pianist that lives in a penthouse apartment above Carnegie Hall (seriously, who lives above Carnegie Hall?!) who goes on a tour of the South. Due to security concerns traveling in pre-desegregated South, Don hires Tony “the Lip” Vallelonga to be his driver and ‘muscle.’ Throughout the course of the film, both characters’ prejudice of the Other are broken down, and by the end a great friendship has been forged. The underlying message seems to be that closeness, proximity, and presence not only reveal to us everyone we meet is hardly who we might think they are, but friendships marked by these always transform us as well. What makes this movie so compelling is that you as the viewer get to watch the gradual closeness and trust being built between Don and Tony Lip. By the end of the movie there’s a sense that ‘these guys are never going to be the same after this summer they spent touring together.’ If you’ve ever had a friendship like that in life that has totally transformed you, this movie will touch you on a deeply personal level. Could Dr. Shirley and Tony be the Frodo and Sam of 2019? I’ll show myself out…
It’s a reminder to respect the individuality of every person. There are voices on both sides of the political aisle out there right now that would like us to see everyone as a member of a group, not as individuals with particular stories and preferences, fears and prejudices. Green Book presents a subtle warning not to mainly consider people as a part of their group-identity but to respect their individuality. Tony discovers towards the beginning of the road trip that to his shock, Don has never listened to Aretha Franklin. In his mind “all black people” should know about Aretha, and should enjoy fried chicken.
Similarly, in the most powerful scene in the movie, Tony and Don are pulled over by police officers in a ‘sundown’ community and thrown into prison. Much to Tony’s surprise, Don makes a phone call the Attorney General of the US, who orders the governor to release them. Tony is shocked, but Don is completely humiliated. Tony argues with Don claiming that he is “darker” than Don, able to relate to ‘his people’ better than him. Don orders Tony to let him out of the car, and has reached his breaking point, claiming that his affluence prevents him from identifying with people from his own race, his race prevents him from being accepted by white people, and his homosexuality alienates him from all people. He angrily reveals the multiple layers of his loneliness and liminality in the world. We ought not assume that everyone is ‘like’ members of their own ‘group,’ whether racially, ideologically, interpersonally etc. The more curious and attentive we are to the people in front of us, the more we learn about their pain and discover them to be unique individuals.
We are definitely not in Gondor anymore, but this was a GREAT movie! What’d you think?