It’s hard to imagine a time when a separate travel book, depending on your race, was required to travel the roads of America, but that is exactly what the titular Green Book is referring to. Published during the era of Jim Crow laws in the South, The Negro Motorist Green Book, was actually an essential survival guide in a period of segregation, Sundown towns, and lynching. Although weighty material, Green Book takes a lighter approach to the subject matter, as two polar opposites take a business road trip in the deep south of the 1960s.
Colourful bouncer, Tony “Lips” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), takes on the job of driving a musician on the Southern leg of his tour, as a temporary job to make ends meet. With the age of civil rights having not been warmly welcomed in the South, and racist sentiment still running deep, making Tony’s job not merely that of a chauffeur, but also a bodyguard and creative problem solver for the black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). As the two mismatched personalities are stuck on the road together for weeks, each learns more about the other, the issues that effect them, and soon form an odd kinship.
An impressive two hander that comes across like an effectively strange combination of The Odd Couple and a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book may not dive head first into the hard issue of racism (rather taking a softly, softly approach), but its strength comes in its lead performances. Mortensen throws himself into the role with total commitment. His character approaches life with such a gusto, that you wonder if Mortensen’s numerous dining sequences were considered stunt work (honestly Tasmanian devils demonstrate better table manners). Tony Lip lives life large, and Mortensen places himself in that bravado, but is capable of bringing compassion. Held as a mirrored opposite is the composed and finicky turn by Mahershala Ali as Dr Don Shirley. Ali’s stiffness and precision hide a depth of pain and isolation, which he is able to bring to the character as the plot progresses. Paired together these two are an effective engine that propels Green Book along its comedy drama path.
Yet there are a few bumps in the road. Putting aside the controversies that have arisen on Green Book‘s publicity tour (and there are a few of them), as a film it is not entirely effective in covering its chief topic. At times it is strangely ham-fisted in its portrayal, such as Dr Shirley looking out at a field of black crop workers, at others its strangely hands off. It seems to approach the subject tentatively, lacking the power of last year’s BlacKkKlansman or the soon to be released The Hate U Give. Sure Shirley’s story is interesting, but filtering it through the lens of a white protagonist, reeks a little of a significant black historical figure becoming a supporting character in their own narrative (Cry Freedom anyone?).
That aside, it does show a friendship that reaches across the boundaries of race and class, and in this day and age of increased divides, perhaps that is the significant factor required.