The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Green Book

In 1989, two movies about race were released -- Bruce Bereford's Driving Miss Daisy and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The former was a nice, safe, feel-good movie on the subject. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The latter was a deep, incisive look at how racism has pervaded society in ways both overt and subtle. It wasn't even nominated for Best Picture.

We find ourselves in a similar situation in 2018. Lee's BlacKkKlansman is another bold, hard-hitting film that forces you to confront the subject. Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (There's Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), is an intentional crowd-pleaser that brings up the insidiousness of racism without ever depicting it in a way that would upset anybody too greatly. That doesn't mean it isn't worthy, though. In a time when the open expression of racism seems to be on the rise, maybe we need an optimistic movie suggesting that people can change. Maybe we need to be reminded that really getting to know someone who is different from us is the best antidote to bigotry. The film works incredibly well on that basis.

Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, an Italian bouncer at a New York nightclub in the '60s. When the club closes for renovations, he gets a temporary job working as a driver for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American pianist planning a concert tour in the deep South. Tony's job is to make sure Don gets from place to place on time, while also protecting him from the trouble that surely awaits.

Tony doesn't necessarily consider himself a racist, yet the signs are there. He casually inserts racial slurs into everyday conversation, and when his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) offers a drink of water to two black repairmen, he throws away the glasses after they're done. As the men wind their way from state to state, they experience a few personality clashes -- Don is fastidious and proper, Tony is slovenly and crude -- but they also discover common ground. Seeing the treatment Don receives in some quarters begins to open up Tony's eyes.

Based on a true story, Green Book derives its title from a publication designed to help African-Americans find hotels and restaurants that would serve them when they traveled. In one of the movie's more enlightening observations, Tony often stays in nicer hotels in better parts of town than his employer, simply because he's white. The film additionally shows how Don is welcomed into fancy establishments to perform, while simultaneously being barred from dining or using the restrooms.

The hazard with a film like this is falling into the cliche of the "white savior" -- that is to say, celebrating the white person who helps the black person, largely pushing aside the black character's story in the process. (See The Blind Side for a stellar example of this phenomenon.) Green Book mostly manages to avoid that because it smartly does two things. First, it gives Don's story equal weight. There's a reason why he wants to tour the South -- one that reveals a great deal about who he is as a person. Second, Tony is no savior, because Don needs no saving. He's a competent, talented, successful person all on his own. These are two men from very different backgrounds who become friends, realizing in the process that their initial impressions of one another were shallow.

Both actors give magnificent performances. Mahershala Ali invests Don with a strong sense of dignity. Despite knowing that he will be treated poorly in the South, he goes anyway, hopeful that his music can change minds. Viggo Mortensen, meanwhile, avoids turning Tony into the Italian stereotype he might have been in other hands. The character has a big heart, despite more than a few rough edges. The chemistry these stars have makes the relationship between Don and Tony feel authentic, rather than just a plot machination. They create a credible friendship.

Green Book might not ever go too far into the darkest implications of racism. It does, however, offer a hopeful message by showing how the right circumstances can cause individuals to challenge their own prejudices. Such a message can never be sent too much, especially when delivered by accomplished actors working at the top of their game.

( 1/2 out of four)

Green Book is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

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