Sunday, February 24, 2019


(Other Best Picture Nominees considered so far: Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, BlackKkKlansmanThe Favourite, and Bohemian Rhapsody.)

Green Book. I don't get the alleged problem with this movie. I don't see it as "The White Savior" -- I see it as The Odd Couple.

Dr. Don Shirley is black, brittle, and insistent on his rights -- for which who could blame him, as he's an educated, talented classical musician forced to play pop to get over, and it's 1962. He can't take comfort in his blackness, either; backstory and behavior suggest his education and ascent from poverty has left him cut off from his roots. (He professes not to know who Aretha Franklin is, surrounds himself with African artifacts, and never talks to his family.) Despite his bitter experience of the world, he's surprisingly unworldly -- putting himself in obvious mortal peril throughout his tour of the Deep South -- and you get the impression he hangs onto that unworldliness, as he hangs onto his nightly bottle of Cutty Sark, because if he were constantly seeping in the undiluted ugliness of the world it would kill him.

For his Southern tour Shirley enlists as a driver/guardian Tony Lip (so-called, he says proudly, because he's "a bullshit artist... I'm good at talking people into doing things they don't wanna do"), a streetwise, unbright Bronx goomba with an extremely que-sera-sera attitude -- which isn't easy to maintain, as he's uneducated and marginally employed with a family to feed. When the Copa, where he works as a bouncer, shuts down for a few months, he's mainly qualified to win short money on hot-dog eating contests and he won't work for the Mob, so when someone gets him the Shirley gig he takes it, even though -- we have clumsily telegraphed to us early on -- he's prejudiced against black people.

Can two diverse men share a Cadillac Seville without driving each other crazy? [Cue theme music]

Yes, Green Book has the kind of Lessons-In-Life-and-Love howlers you would expect. The weirdest is when Tony gets the fastidious Shirley to play some R&B at a local black juke joint. (Shirley delicately removes a glass of whiskey from the upright first.) And Lord help us, those clips on TV aren't a joke, Shirley does help Tony write love letters. To his wife!

But the movie has a trick up its sleeve, and the trick is dramaturgy. Because of the way the characters are built, not only are those scenes less obnoxious than they could have been, the whole Driving Dr. Shirley thing works pretty well, too. First, when Tony really does play White Savior (and, blessedly, we get the first instance of this out of the way early), Shirley is ungrateful and mainly outraged at the unfairness of a system that makes it necessary that he be saved. So it's not really the whitesaving that turns the relationship around. But Tony's enough of a go-along type -- and, let's face it, used to servile gigs -- that he doesn't get too indignant about that. That gives him room to pay attention. And he's also, as a bullshit artist, a good enough student of human nature to actually pick up on what's eating Shirley, and a good enough human being to care. (Key line: "I been working nightclubs in New York City my whole life. I know it's a complicated world.") Shirley may be alienated, but not so alienated he can't pick up that Tony is actually listening, and in response he begins to unburden himself more to him -- even when it's in anger. Time then does its work.

So what if it's corny? I think I would have preferred it if [spoiler!] on Christmas Eve Shirley just stayed home and called his estranged brother instead of going all the way from West 57th Street to the freaking Bronx IN A SNOWSTORM to hang out with the Italians who, a minute ago, were calling black people eggplants. It ain't Frantz Fanon, it's a Hollywood movie. I was held.

Also it's Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, so if nothing else you can soak in their craft. Ali's Shirley is a real old-fashioned fusspot -- you can imagine Shirley learning and adopting a Clifton Webb facade, and shifting to the shit-eating smile when there are white folks to be pleased -- but even from the beginning you can perceive the years of hurt behind it, and when it's exacerbated -- as when a couple of black horseshoe players at a motel call him "fancy pants" -- you can feel the wounds reopen. And his pride is real and he can't be moved off it. (And he's funny! He really nails "I knew you had a gun.") Mortensen's technically ridiculous -- I mean, 'ey, gabagool, 'ats-a some accent, chief. But he's believably a creature of instinct who has operated so effectively on it, and has had so little need (or maybe capacity) for higher orders of thought that you can believe he'd unthinkingly accept Arthur Avenue bigotries, and unthinkingly say the ridiculous shit he says to Shirley (including that Shirley isn't as black as he is!) but, when his instinct tells him he had it all wrong, he would heed that, too. These guys have some great scenes together -- the one in the rain after they get sprung from jail, ending Ali climbing the ladder on "so if I'm not black enough, and if I'm not white enough, and if I'm not man enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?" (Imagine being given that line on a piece of paper and getting what Ali gets out of it!); but I almost prefer watching them do the dumb scenes like the love letter ones, because as much as my eyes roll to describe it, they don't roll when I watch it.

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