Movies From Swank: Green Book

Will SorgMovies Guy

The Oscars are this weekend, and in terms of nominations, it’s a great year with a lot of solid movies up for awards including the always contentious best picture. Besides 2016’s Moonlight win that was undercut by accidentally announcing La La Land, there hasn’t been a best picture winner in recent years with as much controversy as the 2018 film Green Book. This Peter Farrelly-directed film left a large majority of Oscar viewers perplexed. It certainly had the makings of a best-picture shoo-in but it definitely was not the front-runner by any means. 

Watching Green Book years after its release is like eating at Applebee’s. You know it’s going to be acceptable and safe before you come through the door, it’s not going to be life-changing, and you definitely won’t remember too much about it after you’ve finished. This historical road trip dramedy about a Black virtuoso pianist and his Italian driver as they tour through the deep south in the 1960s is a remarkably okay movie. It is hard to remember through all of the social media discourse and regurgitated hot takes, but this movie’s first big critique at the time of its release was that it was boring and fine. Yes, more controversy came after regarding the accuracy and ethics of the film but really most people just shrugged at the film. Viggo Mortenson plays Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a man who is so comically Italian American that it only makes sense that the real-life Vallelonga later had minor appearances on The Sopranos. Mortenson is fine in this film, he plays the role well even if he is constrained to the tired archetype of a low-brow, working-class man who forms a friendship with a person of color and discovers the evils of systemic racism. 

His co-star Mahershala Ali portrays Dr. Don Shirley with nuance and masterful technique so it’s no wonder his performance won him an Oscar. Dr. Shirley is easily the best part of the film as he plays a refined, wealthy performer that grapples with his own self-identity. A common theme throughout the film is his distinct lack of common Black stereotypes which contrasts with the racism the pair of protagonists encounter. It cannot be overstated how much Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of Shirley is essential to the overall impact of the film as without his hard work the heavy-handed film would fall flat on its face. He energizes the whole thing wonderfully. 

However, despite him sharing almost equal screen time with Mortenson, Ali only won best supporting actor. This could be attributed to the common practice of arbitrarily splitting up co-stars into supporting and leading role categories so that one is more likely to win than the other. That year the Oscars had an incredibly competitive lead actor category. Rather than deal with the possibility of Ali and Mortenson competing against each other in an already incredibly competitive year, they decided to put Ali in a category with far less competition as none of the other supporting actors had nearly as much screen time. 

It is astonishing how much time and thought is spent maximizing success for even a single award show. What was not surprising at all however was that this film, about a Black man, told through the perspective of a white man, was directed, written, edited, and almost entirely produced by white people. The sea of old white men coming on stage when the award was announced is almost all you need to critique the film. The film is not bad, it’s just so incredibly formulated to make money and win awards. Pretty much the only thing in it that isn’t soulless is Mahershala Ali’s performance.