TL;DR – a road trip film about identity, race, culture and friendship.
Review (warning: spoilers)
The title of this film is based on The Negro Motorist Green Book which was an annual guidebook for African-American road trippers. From this, you immediately get a sense of what this movie is about. Set in the era of Jim Crow laws where state and local laws enforced racial segregation in the southern United States, the green book provided information on where places were relatively friendly and safe to travelling African-Americans.
The racial divide underlies the story but this film is much more than that as it focuses on two men of different childhoods, backgrounds and cultures overcoming the narrow views imposed on them to find a connection that grows into friendship.
Inspired by a true story, we follow gifted classical and jazz pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a road tip into the deep south with chauffeur and bodyguard, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Don is educated, refined, well-spoken and seeks to rise above (in his own way) the prejudices and discrimination he faces every day. Tony works as a bouncer, struggling to find work in an America coming out of a recession in 1962. The scene where Tony competes in a hot dog eating contest to win a bet sums up the lengths he will go to earn some cash for his wife and two kids. He’s rough, says-it-how-he-sees-it, and has been infected by racial and cultural prejudices himself through society and his own upbringing in a robust Italian family.
When his job as a bouncer is put on hold because the club is being renovated, he applies as a driver for Don on a music tour of the south. The initial friction between them slowly transforming as they continue on their journey together. Examination of Don and Tony’s own idiosyncrasies and fallibilities along with their building trust lifts the film. And when faced with all manner of unsavoury incidents from Don being beaten by a group of white men at a bar to a country club refusing him to eat in the whites-only dining room, Tony comes to the realisation of his own prejudices and their bond becomes one of genuine friendship. There’s plenty of comic moments too that enhances their on-screen chemistry.
Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, this is an uplifting film that is in stark contrast to more recent Best Picture winners in Parasite (black comedy thriller) and Nomadland (bleak drama).
I have also read that Green Book has received controversy in its depiction of Don Shirley along with the white saviour trope (white character saves a non-white character while also learning something about him/herself). Whether such criticism is fair or otherwise, had it not been inspired by a true story, the movie is still highly enjoyable and when viewed through that lens, the message of hope and reconciliation is worth being said. For without it, how will we ever change for the better if such things are kept silent?
9 out of 10