Updated: Sep 18, 2021
In Green Book, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Vigo Mortensen) are two guys from differential worlds who come together, when Tony, a white working class east coaster, is hired to drive Dr Shirley, a world renowned musician and man of wealth on a music tour through the 1960's deep south. While out on the road, Tony trades experience and stories with Shirley and Shirley does the same, all the while Shirley tries to educate and help Tony, and while Tony throws wise cracks and stereotypical stuff at Shirley as way to loosen him up as they pass through from concert to concert. The two end up going through hardships together--while Tony becomes more educated about literacy, the world, and race, and Shirley fades deeper into reclusivity through racist encounters and his distrust of Tony. The two take on challenges from prejudice folks, and some generated between each other.
Tony is steadfast in staying the same, and is supported by his wife, Delores, (Linda Cardellini) through letters of support. But attempts to get out of his comfortability only comes when Shirley gets at him or when he is shown the realities of the countries racist behavior. But Tony, through and through is made to be likeable no matter what happens. Shirley, however is the unlikable pushy, genius who is not understanding, a way in which whites more often than not, draw black characters in their films, and in this film we're not even given reason as to why he is like this. For Tony, he is made to be understood from the moment we see him at home. The two form a bond through the all of the mess of the tour-- but the film feels and operates like more about Tony's life than both of their lives.
The movie is unsatisfying because of this point. Where Tony is gradually progressing as a human being because of Dr Shirley, Shirley is gradually heading toward insecurity and isolation, and seemingly can only be saved by Tony's friendship. But Shirley's character is never given the chance and opportunity to change to something different, and main writer and son of Tony, Nick Vallelonga never gives Shirley any chance to think about things and reflect, and also never provides us with any motivation on if Shirley would like to change. Shirley's character is written one dimensionally, and his humanity is never really portrayed, and never really given a chance to be as free. It leaves you wanting an actual experience, wanting to feel for them, and rarely ever do you feel you like you can see the humanity of these characters at least for certain, this is Shirley's case. With an unequal portrayal and experience on screen given to Ali's character, the film becomes just as bad, and one note, and lacking of much depth as the unequal balance of its characters.
Mortensen's character finds redemption, gets to be human, and we see some of his interpersonal life shown on screen. Ali's character is made to stay isolated, stiff, never allowed to change, and is taught to be more passive as a way to deal his eccentricity, his genius, his idiosyncrasies, and the racism he encounters. Whether it's in the lobby of restaurant and Shirley is told he can't eat somewhere or at a bar where four men try to gang up on Shirley, Tony is always telling him to relax and to "not start stuff with people", and Shirley agrees, Tony takes himself and for the time, Shirley off the hook. But we know that passivity is not a productive weapon against racism, and it seems for the sake of making Tony feel good and white audiences feel good, we're not gonna get into too much trouble.
What looks like a buddy dramedy and period piece, ends up being just an ignorant, unintelligent, louder pitch for reverse racism and understanding of the everyday bigoted, working class white man, and the world he lives in--be it his family or his time period. The film never goes into the black man's personal life, or into his motivations, and ideas, or even into the importance of his feeling not black enough and not white enough, in one the films most important, and heartfelt scenes, that, in actuality goes by so quickly that audiences don't even feel the impact of this feeling that has rarely ever been talked about in the history of cinema. Shirley is left to remain a stale caricature that audience feels distant from, like every other black person in this film be it the waiters, sharecroppers, or black folks dancing and jive talking in a bar.
In his pacification of Shirley as a way to help, Tony gets Shirley interested in playing jazz music near the end of the film so he can be, "more like your people", which Shirley, and director (Peter Farrelly, Dumb and Dumber) has us look at like a freeing move, but what it really says is that, "boy, this is where you're supposed to be." While the performances are good from Mortensen and Ali, it feels like Farrelly, is trying to depict something, and never saying anything, and leaves it up to the film to say what it needs to-- other than idea that this is how blacks are and should be, and this is how whites are and should be: One, where we know you and are comfortable with that, and the other free and able to be themselves, or change, it doesn't matter. Green Book completely misses the mark to say anything on race, culture, human beings, and community. What comes out of it is racist rhetoric and white rage on blacks, a silence of black voices, and expression. It is a film that feels like it was made to make white audiences feel better about racism, and racist people. Green Book, although the holiday-esc movie we got, is actually the movie we don't need right now.