Oscar Debate: Green Book

Oscars! The Academy Awards! Every year they happen, and every year I ignore them. But this year, the 91st year of the Oscars, I have a large amount of free time on my hands and not many options to fill it with (it's complicated). So why not watch all of the Oscar-winning movies and give my expert, definitive opinions on them? 

And by "all" I mean "some", and by "some" I mean probably, like, four. 

Note: A majority  of the winning movies this year were based, to various extents, on historical events. I'm going to be mostly ignoring the real-life stories behind them and the extent to which they did or did not adhere to/respect those events, and just talk about the movies themselves. If you want historical commentary, there's an ample amount of it from people better qualified than me.

We may as well start with Green Book , the movie no one wanted to win best picture, but which we all secretly knew was going to. Directed by Some Guy better known for stupid comedies, Green Book  is based on the real life relationship between Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson) and Don Shirley, the latter a famous black pianist and the former a bouncer who acted as his driver during a tour of the deep south in 1961.

Vallelonga is a tough-talking, tough-drinking, tough-fighting working class tough guy, while Shirley is a wealthy, refined gentleman. They drive around and their personalities clash due to classism, racism happens, and they become friends.

I just described the entire movie.

Green Book's first and biggest flaw--of which there are many--is that it literally doesn't have a plot. Tony and Don just drift from mishap to mishap, none of them leaving much of a lasting impression or changing the trajectory of the story in any way. The closest thing the movie has to an arc is our two leads getting over their differences and becoming friends, and that happens less than a third of the way through the movie. And even that character development doesn't cover much ground; Tony and Don are basically okay with each other from the get go and they're both sufficiently invested in the arrangement (Tony badly needs the money, Don needs someone who'll get him out of a dangerous situation and Tony is his only option) that it never feels like there's any risk of them walking away from each other, despite a few weak jabs at tension in that direction. 

So if the movie doesn't have a story, what is it about? Mostly, it's about Tony and how great he is. This is very much The Tony Vallelonga Show, Featuring Dr. Don Shirley. He's firmly the viewpoint character, and he's the person the movie is most concerned with. And yet he remains as thin as cigarette paper throughout; we never get a good idea of what motivates him beyond love for his family, nor does the movie ever interrogate why he was racist at the start of the movie and why he became less racist by its end. It seems to be running on the ignorance principle, where bigotry towards a group of people stems entirely from a lack of familiarity with them.

Don theoretically gets the meatier character arc as he's forced to confront his identity as a black man in America, something his privileged upbringing has allowed him to mostly ignore, but this is all still filtered through Tony's viewpoint. So we get a scene where he gives Don a crash course in the popular black entertainers of the day, and yes, there really is a bit where he introduces Don to the wonders of fried chicken. This is followed by a scene where Don plays at an old plantation house and is served a home-cooked fried chicken meal by his Colonel Sanders-esque host, which I guess is meant to show...that Tony was being racist when he assumed Don should like fried chicken? Except Don really does love KFC once he tries it. Why is it racist for Colonel Sanders to serve Don up fried chicken, but okay when Tony does it?

That was a rhetorical question, the answer is that this movie is primarily concerned with lionizing the white working class, and it does so by equating them to african americans during the Jim Crow era. 

No, really. 

The movie repeatedly draws not-very-subtle parallels between Don's oppression and Tony's status as a working class Italian-American; the fact that Tony's struggles mostly revolve around people being unable to pronounce his surname, while Don's struggles revolve around almost being murdered repeatedly, illustrates the problem with this approach better than I could. If Tony is "halfway to a n*****", as a racist cop puts it, then he must have gotten the half that doesn't involve lynchings.

I said that this movie "lionizes" the white working class, but that's maybe the wrong word for it, since the white working class isn't portrayed particularly kindly, even discounting the racism. Tony is a brutish, ignorant fool functioning on a level barely above that of a child, who might as well be a separate species from the refined upper class who come to watch Don perform. He's eating more or less constantly throughout the film, usually messily; at one point he folds an entire pizza up and starts chowing down on it in bed. Everyone in Tony's family and social circle is just as lump-headed as him, or they're part of the mafia.  

I guess this isn't surprising, since the movie runs entirely on stereotypes and cliches. Even the southern racists are sneering cartoon characters who'd seem crude in an after-school special. This is not a subtle movie. During their first meeting, when Don interviews Tony for the job, he's sitting on a literal throne clad in a gold-embroidered robe.

Because, like, 


There's a good story here that could have been told. The intersection of class and race in America is an interesting and underlooked topic. But a hagiography of a white dude isn't the place to tell that story. Don Shirley's homosexuality (something I didn't actually know about going into the movie)  is brought up once and then completely glossed over, as though the film-makers were already struggling mightily to touch on classism and racism without adding sexuality into the mix. Maybe they'd have had more time to address it if Don had been the main character of his own story.

Given everything I've said, you might get the impression that Green Book is a completely terrible movie, but it isn't. It's competently made, it looks nice, and each of the individual chunks that make up what passes for its narrative are entertaining and watchable. It is a perfectly serviceable chunk of feel-good treacle, like the sugary bottom layer of a mug of overly sweetened tea. It will melt in your mouth in a vaguely pleasant way, then you'll immediately forget it ever existed.

Apart from the pro-police scene it sneaks in right at the end. That's probably the only part I'll still remember this time next year. 

Alternative titles for this movie

  • Green Suck
  • Groan Book
  • Driving Mahershala Ali (to a better movie)