When “Green Book” played before a packed house at the Middleburg Film Festival last month, you could feel the room levitate. The movie stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as the real-life characters Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and the pianist Don Shirley, who in the early 1960s hired Vallelonga to drive him during a tour through the South. The film, co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, doesn’t flinch from dramatizing racism writ both large and small: Vallelonga espouses the prejudices and reflexive bias one would expect from someone ensconced in the insular Italian American culture. On the road, Shirley is subjected to the kind of physical threats and psychological violence that characterized life for so many black Americans in Jim Crow America.
But on that October Sunday in Middleburg, the crowd was laughing. For the dead seriousness of the subject matter, “Green Book” is an often uproarious comedy, with Mortensen leaning into his persona as an unreconstructed goombah with obvious relish. Ali is just as funny for being utterly deadpan throughout a performance that makes the most of his magnetically regal bearing. Once the jokes began to land, movie and audience engaged in a sort of call-and-response rapport, generating such infectious warmth that the minute the film ended — with a line of dialogue that only made the movie more endearing — the entire ballroom lept to its collective feet.
“Green Book,” in other words, played like gangbusters. And, as a film that has scooped up audience awards at nearly every festival it’s played this fall, it’s a bona fide crowd-pleaser. Which makes it something of an anomaly: a feel-good movie set against a backdrop of vicious racism and hate, a buddy comedy in which one of the buddies utters racial epithets as casually as he orders a cannoli.
Of course, by the end of “Green Book,” Tony Lip has changed. Which makes the movie less an anomaly than a classic example of just the kind of movie Hollywood used to make about racism and other social ills in postwar America. “Green Book” fits squarely into a tradition shared by such dramas as “The Defiant Ones,” “Lilies of the Field” and “In the Heat of the Night,” as well as the comedy “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and, later, “Driving Miss Daisy,” in which an unexpected relationship between characters of different races yielded reassuring lessons about tolerance, mutual understanding and moral uplift.
As tough-minded and honest as some of these movies could be, they were just as often simplistic, sentimental and trite, less grounded in the reality of their time than in the self-congratulatory aspirations of their white, liberal makers. And in its own way, “Green Book” fits right into that mold. With its gentle disposition, rich production values and jaunty road-movie structure, it’s a throwback to a time when movies addressed problems as things to be solved, not through gnarly structural reforms or (heaven forfend) revolutionary change, but through personal redemption, most often on the part of a white hero enlightened at the hands of an almost inhumanly perfect black foil.
Part of the pleasure of watching “Green Book” is precisely that it feels so old-fashioned, while being self-aware enough to avoid the most patronizing pitfalls of the genre. But that frisson of nostalgia wouldn’t be possible if this were the only movie addressing similar themes. One of the things that makes “Green Book” so enjoyable is that it is part of a cinematic ecosystem dramatically changed since the “problem picture’s” heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, movies featuring a black lead were few and far between. “Green Book” arrives at a time when “Black Panther” — featuring an almost-all-black cast — is the year’s most successful film, and when stories, roles and genres featuring black artists in mainstream films are in the midst of a virtually unprecedented expansion.
There might have been a time when Mortensen and Ali’s fractious, funny bromance would have been our only big-screen depiction of interracial friendship. Today, “Green Book” opens just a few months after John David Washington and Adam Driver wrestled with their own identities and relationship in Spike Lee’s “Black KkKlansman,” which itself opened a month or two after Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal played lifelong buddies confronting the touchy dynamics of unexamined privilege and appropriation in “Blindspotting.” What’s more, “Green Book” opens contemporaneously with “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s taut action thriller starring Viola Davis as a character whose interactions with her female heist-mates isn’t a let’s-hug-it-out sisterhood as much as a businesslike, mutually respectful alliance.
That “Green Book” is just one among many matters. Just as it matters that “The Hate U Give” presented positive images of black girlhood the same year that “A Wrinkle in Time” did. And that we’ll see portrayals of black romance and intimacy not just in Boots Riley’s gonzo satire “Sorry to Bother You,” but in “Creed II” and Barry Jenkins’s exquisitely observed upcoming drama “If Beale Street Could Talk.” And that, just weeks after “Crazy Rich Asians” proved that an all-Asian cast could carry a widely loved blockbuster, John Cho starred in the race-neutral leading role of the Internet thriller “Searching.”
Had any of these movies been released in isolation, they would have been The One, the “minority”-centric movie that’s both chronically underestimated in terms of aesthetic sophistication and commercial performance, and habitually burdened by impossibly high expectations in terms of getting every single thing “right” about the culture it’s representing.
In 2018, we’ve witnessed firsthand why The One has always been such a reductive and limiting construct, and why more is so much better: The wider the spectrum of stories, characters, genres and tones, the more freedom every movie has simply to be itself on its own terms. The less unfair pressure they’re under to be flawless and all-encompassing. And the more breathing room characters have to be people rather than paragons.
As part of this year’s encouragingly variegated field, “Green Book” can be what it is: a modest, wonderfully entertaining parable about pain, evolution and personal transformation that’s uplifting, yes, but in ways that feel earned rather than pandering. It isn’t the movie we need right now. It’s one of many we need right now. And with luck, there are still untold numbers to come.