For decades, myriad name-brand Hollywood features have offered messages that are special to the masses of moviegoers and marketed to the masses of moviegoers. They involve the importance of love, and heartfelt person-to-person friendship. The key to living a good life and finding true happiness is understanding and accepting the difference between right and wrong and living a life that radiates honor. I could not begin to cite the list of films that puts forth this message.
Well, in 2018, love and honor too often are old-world, are laughably dated. Sadly, this is what mirrors contemporary American culture. If you want to embrace the American Dream, you had best focus on coming in first place, owning the fanciest house and car, and making oodles of money. You embrace friendship only if there is something in it for you. That’s the bottom line. And this precisely is why a new film, titled GREEN BOOK, is such an eye-opener.
GREEN BOOK is old fashioned in that it deals with the essence of an unusual friendship. At its core, its point is that individuals transcend stereotype, and the essence of friendship transcends race. But it also is very 2018 in the manner in which it acknowledges a range of issues. GREEN BOOK also is based on a true story and, these days, it seems as if just about any film that is not biographical in nature tells a fact-based story.
Anyway, GREEN BOOK is set in the early 1960’s. It features two central characters. One is Tony Lip, a stereotypical working class Italian-American New Yorker played by Viggo Mortensen. The other is Don Shirley, a very unstereotypical black pianist who hires Tony as driver and chaperone on a tour through the bowels of the Jim Crow South. Mahershala Ali plays him and he is a challenging and captivating character, a man who is way ahead of his time. For one thing, he is a classical musician; he prefers Chopin to Chuck Berry or James Brown. For another, he is gay. In other words, he is a 21st-century American surviving in the 20th-century.
GREEN BOOK is far from a perfect film. Plenty of questions emerge: For example, why does the graceless Italian-American from The Bronx so easily accept the sophisticated black man who resides in Carnegie Hall, rather than Harlem? But GREEN BOOK is well-acted, with Ali and Mortensen offering eye-opening, award-caliber performances. And just as importantly, there are some profoundly moving moments. One that speaks volumes involves the educated black New Yorker quietly observing a gaggle of overworked, overtired black Southern sharecroppers toiling in a field. If he represents the future, the sharecroppers echo an America that once was, once upon a time. No dialogue accompanies this scene. None is necessary.
It is not at all surprising that GREEN BOOK won the People’s Choice Award at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. And lastly, for those who may not know: The film’s title derives from a handbook for black motorists which, back in the day, offered valuable suggestions for African-Americans traveling through the Deep South. The complete title is “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” It was published each year between 1936 and 1966.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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