Adam_Davie’s review published on Letterboxd:
Who is this film for? And what is it looking to accomplish?
These are the two questions that have been swirling around in my mind almost a week later after watching Green Book, Peter Farrelly's racial road movie about the classically trained pianist Don Shirley, Tony "Lip" Vallenlonga, and their 1960's journey through the deep south. I know the answer to both questions, but I don't think Peter knows and I don't think that co-writer Nick Vallenlonga knows either. But what they do know is how to spin a tale of racial recognition, reckoning, and redemption into a crowdpleasing hit that will cater to their targeted demographic while accomplishing nothing in the way of answering the tough questions about race that other films like Beale Street and Black Kkklansman have done so well.
The film is about as cookie-cutter as you can get. The two protagonists are as far apart on the racial, social, educational, (etc...etc) spectrum as you can think. Tony is portrayed as the stereotypical, hyper-masculine Italian tough guy that we've seen in so many films before. He's not afraid of a fight, he's street smart and most important, he's what I'd call a racist by exclusion. What I mean by that is that the movie attempts to say that it's not his fault that he's a racist. He's been isolated (translation: segregated) from the people he loathes and fears, but all it takes is a few weeks on the road with a respectable negro like Don Shirley to change his tune. The movie lobs racial and situational softballs at Tony and the audience to bring us over to his side and by the end, you can't help but feel that he, and on a greater scale, the world, have changed substantially. But it’s never that simple.
Don Shirley, on the other hand is depicted as a passive, worldly, yet uninformed hermit who is ignorant about all things related to black culture. He possesses a loneliness that's of his or his family's own doing. Because of this, he's an ideal recipient for the services of our white savior, Tony Lip. The movie is primarily told from Tony's perspective, so everything Don experiences, we experience through the mind of Tony. Many others have taken issue with this and rightfully so. But it's simple mathematics. By keeping the focus on Tony and his arc as a character, you alleviate the guilt, anger, and embarrassment that white audience members feel when watching movies that address issues of race discrimination head on. If a filmmaker pushes too hard, audiences clam up, seats go unfilled, and the box office may suffer. Placing more of the focus on Don Shirley and his trials might've been too much for the audience to handle, in my opinion. When you move away from the POV of the privileged and begin to focus on the POV of those who are disadvantaged, uncomfortable truths become magnified which increases the discomfort for those not accustomed to having to address their complicity and complacency when it comes to supporting systemic racism in all its evil forms.
But the film does have two shining moments. And they arrive courtesy of Don Shirley himself. After being threatened and assaulted by a group of rednecks after stopping by a bar for a drink, Shirley is saved by Tony and on their way back to the hotel, Don explains to Tony that he was just going out for some fresh air. "Air?!" Lip shouts. "Don't you know where you are?" Even in his drunken and disheveled state, Don was a man who could cut right to the heart of the matter. "Does the geography really matter?" he says. What he meant is that bigotry knows no boundaries. Racism travels well and no matter if he went to a bar in the deep south or Tony's favorite watering hole back in N.Y., he'd still be guilty of the same crime: being black, unworthy and unwanted. This line was so subtle that it probably went over most people’s heads.
The second moment of truth that snuck into this film comes during a scene after Tony and Don get pulled over and eventually locked up by a pair of cops. They're released shortly thereafter and as they make their way towards their next stop, a heated argument breaks out between the two. Midway through the argument, Don, now frustrated by the debate, gets out of the car and begins walking down the road away from the vehicle that Tony still occupies. A portion of this scene is featured in the trailer for the film and it paints Dr. Shirley in a very sympathetic light, which is likely to win over potential audience members. He delivers the "If I'm not black enough/white enough..." line but for some reason the film's creators decided not to include his words to Tony that preceded those lines. In response to Tony's claims that he's disconnected from his people and that because of his greater familiarity with black culture he's blacker than Tony, Shirley replies:
"Yes, I live in a castle! Alone. And rich white folks let me play piano for them, because it makes them feel cultured. But when I walk off that stage I go right back to being another nigger to them--BECAUSE THAT IS THEIR TRUE CULTURE!"
These words hit me like a ton of bricks because these are the words that needed to be recited over and over again so that the audience could hear it loud and clear. But unfortunately, these moments are few and far between in a film that was more concerned with comforting rather than confronting the audience and forcing them to think about not just how far we’ve come, but how far we have to go to create a more fair and just society.
Lastly, the ending, when compared with the two films that I referenced above, is one of the biggest cop outs I’ve ever seen in my life. The film closes with our two main characters arriving back in New York after a lengthy tour. They’ve been in a race against time in order to get home before Christmas. Tony is now a changed man (somewhat), and in a move signaling his goodwill towards Shirley, he invites him up for dinner. Shirley refuses, Tony looks stunned and from there they shake hands and both go their separate ways. In the next scene, Tony is reunited with his family and they gather around the dinner table to enjoy the dinner and the company of each other. Shirley retreats to his Carnegie Hall residence and an expertly crafted wide shot displays his residence in all its glory: all the furniture, the trinkets and souvenirs for all to see. Shirley sits in the center of the frame and appears as lonely as he seemed when we first meet him. This scene is contrasted with shots of Tony and his family enjoying the festivities, and in my opinion, if the film would’ve closed on this shot, it would’ve delivered a hell of a knockout blow. Instead, the film concludes with Shirley sharing a meal with the Vallenlonga’s and although I couldn’t validate that this ever happened, I’m disappointed nonetheless.
In 1962, the thought of African-Americans having a seat at the table of American society wasn’t even being seriously considered until a few years later during the Civil Rights Movement. And in between then, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears were expended to make that happen. By ending the film this way, Farrelly, Vallenlonga and others seem to think that we can overcome our differences through personal contact and conversation. If we just talked a bit more, maybe we could find common ground. But eight weeks on the road can't undo 200 plus years of bondage, Jim Crow, housing and job discrimination, educational gaps and a fear of blackness that still persists to this day. If you want to view this film as a story about the supposed friendship between polar opposites, then go ahead. But don’t also assume that this film is a serious meditation on race in America. It isn’t, and the story, from just about beginning to end, proves my point.