If there’s one movie that was done no favor by winning an Academy Award it was Crash, and if there was another movie that was done no favor by winning that award it was probably Driving Miss Daisy. Where Crash was criticized for what it was Driving Miss Daisy was criticized for what it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t was Do the Right Thing. In a vacuum Driving Miss Daisy is fairly inoffensive; it’s the story of a decades long friendship between two older people from very different backgrounds who overcome their prejudices and come to respect each other over time. A generous reading is that it’s telling white people that we’re not so different, a less generous reading is that it’s telling black people to stop making so much trouble and maybe white people will treat them better. Any other year the Academy might not have gotten any shit for rewarding a movie like that but they decided to give it Best Picture in 1989, the same year that Spike Lee released his widely beloved masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a film with a much more challenging and provocative take on race. That movie failed to even garner a Best Picture nomination and the symbolism of ignoring Lee’s film in favor of a movie about a “nice” black guy was not lost on observers and a controversy was born that culminated in Kim Basinger calling the Academy out on their own show. We’ve spent the last thirty years scoffing at that choice and yet these “friendly” movies about race relations remain an easy sell around the world whether it’s in the form of something like The Intouchables or Victoria & Abdul and now there seems to be massive Oscar buzz around another movie about a black person and a white person coming to learn that they’re not that bad while on the road, could history be repeating itself?
Set in 1962, Green Book follows a guy named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson), a streetwise New York Italian who works as a bouncer the legendarily mobbed up nightclub The Copacabana. After an incident Lip finds himself out of work for two months while the Copacabana is closed for renovations. Fortunately for him he receives a tip that there may be a job opening as a driver for a pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Shirley is a classically trained pianist, but also an African American living a profoundly racist society and out of a sort of need to face the wider world he’s booked a tour of the Deep South, where he plans to play a variety of concert halls and private shows at the estates of wealthy socialites. Of course a black man touring the south at this time faced a great deal of danger, so he was in part looking for a driver and in part looking for someone who could defuse situations and if need be act as a straight-up bodyguard. Tony Lip seems to be what he’s looking for and hires him, but as the road trip begins it was clear that the two would have personality clashes. Shirley is a wealthy and sophisticated man of refinement while Lip is a crude and uneducated guy from the block, and the two frequently bicker over these differences, but as the film moves on the two start to realize they can trust each other.
Green Book was directed by, of all people, Peter Farrelly. Farrelly has until now been part of a duo with his brother Bobby Farrelly and the two have become synonymous with broad lowbrow mainstream comedy. This was the duo behind Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Me Myself & Irene and they generally didn’t stray too far from the tone that made them famous even though they had not seen much real success at all since the turn of the millennium. Now he seems to have separated from his sibling and is trying to “go legit” so to speak and show he can make something a bit more serious. And to his credit I don’t think his direction here is much of a problem at all. He’s clearly a seasoned professional and shoots the film with traditional Hollywood efficiency. His sense of humor also isn’t completely put to waste here either. I would never call the movie a comedy exactly but given that it is essentially a buddy road movie there is some of that usual dynamic where the two sort of drive each other crazy before coming to like each other and this definitely leads to some comic relief that serves the movie they’re making well enough. He also gets some pretty good performances out of his leads: Tony Lip is a bit of a walking goomba stereotype but Mortenson makes it work and keeps him believable while Mahershala Ali manages to make his character seem endearingly snobby rather than the one dimensional guy he could have been.
So before I get mean about this, let it be known that I think this is a perfectly competent movie, one that people will enjoy watching if they catch it on HBO on some random evening and which has a message that in and of itself is largely inoffensive. Here’s the thing though, this is late 2018 and pretty much every movie that comes out around this time inevitably gets looked at in terms of Award season and by extension in terms of legacy and in terms of the constant tug of war over the soul of cinema, and in those terms I have some major problems with this movie being celebrated. For one thing, the movie is kind of predictable. If you’ve seen enough movies you have a pretty good idea of what these characters’ arcs are going to be and it also hits certain moments in a rather false way. When the film introduces subplots like Shirley helping Lip write letters home you can pretty easily guess how it’s going to pay off and the film’s sense of irony about Lip being the less refined of the pair are handled in increasingly obvious ways. Kris Bowers’ score is also part of the problem as it’s a very standard issue work that constantly intrudes and tries to really turn the emotion up to eleven in some really phony ways.
So the movie is kind of corny in and of itself, but then we have to deal with the way the movie addresses race, which in many ways seems rather basic. It’s the kind of movie that seems to have been made for people who went to really conservative schools that never bothered to give even the most cursory of black history lessons. Hell, even the characters at the center of the film seem oddly naïve about the world they live in. The Shirley character was intentionally going on this tour in an attempt to face down Southern racism and Lip is a guy who may well have known the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas and yet the movie constantly has both of them suddenly turning into Pollyannas whenever they encounter a tailor that won’t let Shirley try on a suit or a sheriff that tries to enforce a sundown law. These scenes don’t strike me as an honest portrayal of how these guys probably acted so much as they’re trying to shock modern audiences who somehow never watched many of the hundreds of other movies about the Jim Crow South that have been made in the past. And that’s the problem with movies like these, they primarily only seek to show the wrongs of the silliest forms of discrimination of the past and frankly those are the easiest possible targets.
So what is the ultimate message of this supposed to be? That people overcome their differences by getting to know each other better? That is indeed the same damn message that Driving Miss Daisy was peddling back in 1989 and if it seemed kind of weak back then it’s certainly weak now. These movies always operate under this simplistic assumption that racism was a problem in the South caused by dumb deplorables and that Lyndon Johnson fixed the problem and we know better now because individuals learned better and stopped being mean to each other. Here and there this movie does at least suggest it knows better than that in little asides like when Shirley suggests to Lip after escaping a redneck bar that he probably wouldn’t have been treated much better at a bar back in Lip’s own neighborhood, but by the end when they’re actually being helped by a sheriff rather than hurt by one simply because they’ve gone far enough North really plays back into that old framework. What’s more the movie ignores the larger systemic causes of oppression, the kinds of thing that no amount of Tony Lip learning to be nice to highly talented black men he finds himself befriending is going to fix.
Compare it to something like If Beale Street Could Talk, which is set a decade later and in the same city that is supposedly such a safe space for Shirley and you immediately realize how bullshit this framing is. That is a movie about black families more or less being fed to the grinder by an uncaring criminal justice system, and while it’s certainly set in the past it’s still significantly more relevant to civil rights struggles that we’re still fighting today. And there’s been no shortage of other movies about race relations made this year by black filmmakers like Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, Monsters and Men, Black Panther, and of course a brand new movie by Spike Lee called Blackkklansman. Those movies all have their pros and cons and none of them are on the level of Do The Right Thing but they all feel far more in touch with the politics of 2018 and most of them tell their stories in more creative and exciting ways as well. And that’s why this movie kind of pisses me off. I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying it and I could see it having some value for elementary school kids or, like, grannies who are never going to understand something a little more confrontational than The Blind Side. However, if you’re an adult (or an Academy member) the time has come to reach for something more than this kind comfort food. Like Shirley says to Lip at one point: you can do better.
**1/2 out of Five