This week brings one of those highly acclaimed Oscar films that somehow missed us here on the peninsula when it was originally released back in November.
While it’s easy to be bitter about the fact that movies like this — movies with substance, subtlety and a lack of either explosions or animated snowmen — usually skip us, but credit where credit is due. I appreciate the opportunity to get to see “Green Book” on the big screen, even if it is a little late.
Oddly, the movie released on streaming almost immediately after it came to our local theater, but if you have the chance, I’d highly encourage you to go out and see it rather than watch it on your couch. Besides the fact that the big-screen experience still outweighs even the best home system, your ticket dollars will encourage the theaters to do more of this kind of thing — bringing us smaller, less financially certain films. More diversity in our cinematic options is always a good thing.
“Green Book” tells the story of Dr. Don Shirley, classically trained pianist — one of the greatest in the world, and leader of a celebrated trio about to embark on a tour of the deep South in 1962. The one problem — though he knows very little about the everyday lives of black people in his own country, Dr. Shirley is indeed black and a tour of the southern states could be tricky, no matter how celebrated his trio is.
To assist, he hires Tony Vallalonga, aka Tony Lip, to drive him and act as his, for lack of a better word, bodyguard.
Tony is a stereotypical New York Italian guy. To look at him, you’d assume, as many do, that he’s connected to the mafia, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, don’t judge a book by its cover could be the subtitle for this movie.
As Dr. Shirley and Tony make their way across the country, being guided by the infamous Green Book — the travel guide which purported to be able to point black travelers in the direction of friendly establishments throughout the South — the two men learn as much about each other as they do about the attitudes of people who see them as either elitist, subhuman, or both.
The film itself is very entertaining, and, if anything, a little lightweight considering the subject matter.
In fact, this has been the cause of a bit of the backlash “Green Book” is seeing as critics complain that the film is too sanitized and doesn’t do enough to illustrate the horrors of this era. My answer to that is that not all movies have to do all things. This is not “Mississippi Burning.”
This is a specific story, based on real people, and to at least some extent, actual events. Sure, the relationship between these two men doesn’t have to surmount impossible hurdles in order to thrive the way it might in, say, “12 Years a Slave,” but, again, this isn’t that movie.
One of my favorite parts of this movie was the hopeful tone it engenders. There are plenty of racists in this movie, but this movie seems to suggest that you can’t expect everyone to be able to be their perfect selves all the time. If that sounds like I’m equivocating, so be it, but so much of the theme of this movie is about mistaken assumptions.
Tony begins the movie with the assumption that black people are somehow dirty and, most likely, thieves. As the movie goes along, his attitudes change and the movie, rather than punish him for his earlier impressions, celebrates his ability to change.
Dr. Shirley, too, makes assumptions about the kind of man Tony is and what he’s capable of. Shirley, too, changes and again, the movie celebrates that. Now, obviously, the grievance that Italian Americans have concerning assumptions about their intelligence or propensity for violence doesn’t really compare to the 400 years of bondage that African-Americans have suffered, and I don’t think the movie is making an equivalence argument. But the particular prejudices between these two individuals are pretty similar and it’s a good example of how you have to take these things down to a personal level.
I found “Green Book” charming, moving, and very entertaining. The performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are stellar, and rightly up for Academy Awards. These two guys are really amazing.
Mortensen’s been around for a while, all the way back to “Lord of the Rings” and before. Ali has come up suddenly, but is taking Hollywood by storm.
I don’t know how much longer this film will be in town, but as long as it is, head over and watch it. Not only will you see a really good movie, but you’ll encourage good behavior on the part of the theater. Grade: A
“Green Book” is rated PG-13 for brief violence, language, and adult themes.
• By CHRIS JENNESS