The Best Picture Nominees: Green Book

| February 17, 2019

The 91st Annual Academy Awards are just one week away and to celebrate I am taking a look at all eight of the year’s selections for Best Picture.  Are they any good?  Let’s take a look:

When it comes to dealing with the history of race relations in America, Hollywood usually cranks it out in two favors: A.) hard-hitting and challenging films that look our racial problems dead in the eye and challenge us by asking us to consider the issue on its own terms, or B.) simplistic, easy-to-swallow audience pleasers that shave points by dramatizing and undercutting the raw meat of the problem and reformatting them into an over-simplified heroes and villains motif without asking questions or challenging us in any way.

Green Book fits all-too-comfortably into column B.

What we have here is a vanilla rebranding of Driving Miss Daisy (with a slight touch of Planes Trains and Automobiles) that switches the racial roles but without that picture’s character nuances.  Here – based on a true story – we follow a tough New York City bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) whose skills at dealing with trouble makers gets him the attention of a world-renowned classical pianist named Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).  The musician asks him to be his driver on an eight-week concert tour through the mid-west and into the deep south.

So, of course, once you realize that this movie takes place in the early 60s and that a black man is going to be escorted into the deep south by a tough guy, you can already see the film’s trajectory.  What should raise this above the average standard movie of this type are the character nuances, but it’s only a bit.  Tony the Lip is your average New York City wise guy with a big ‘ol heart and a lot of street smarts.  He’s also a bit of a cliché, Mortensen’s Peschi-esqe fuggeddaboutit schtick gets old real fast.  And Doc Shirley is an educated, well-mannered gent whose upbringing has kept him sheltered.

Ali gives the better performance.  Shirley is a man who has risen above his expected cultural role and made something of himself, playing music that is not expected of a black man, and carrying himself in a dignified manner that throws people off.  But that creates a social identity crisis in that he struggles to understand where he fits.  In the film’s best scene, he confesses that the color of his skin excludes him from white society but his cultured manner excludes him from black social circles as well.  So then, he questions, who am I?

It’s a good scene but it is nested in a movie that has to include tired old scenes of Tony fighting with bigoted bar owners and nervous country club managers.  Whenever the movie drifts into asking important questions, it then embarrasses itself with tired old scenes of two people from different backgrounds schooling each other (the moment when the white man schools the black man on eating fried chicken is a particular low point).  Green Book doesn’t raise your blood pressure nor it lower it.  It is a story of race relations for a mass audience that doesn’t want to be upset by the material.  They want to feel good, and so the movie gives them exactly what they want.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.