- 29 Jan 19
Peter Farrelly's Green Book offers an exploration of racism fatally undermined by white saviour syndrome.
Green Book is a buddy-comedy road-trip movie with a witty script, great performances and a feel-good message, that is designed to make white people feel comfortable about racism.
I wish I didn't need to issue the following statement, but seeing as this film has not just been made, but is receiving widespread critical acclaim, let us err on the side of caution: white people shouldnıt feel comfortable about racism.
This is a White Saviour film, and ticks every box of that pandering, damaging trope. The film is based on the true story of Don Shirley, a jazz pianist and composer whose talent was nothing short of genius, and who toured throughout the Deep South during the 1960s. Shirley was also rumoured to be gay, and a complicated character - which all combined, should make Shirley the subject of endless exploration, celebration and representation, given our fascination with tortured male geniuses.
Except, Shirley is black. So the film is instead framed from the perspective of Shirley's white driver.
Tony 'The Lip' Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is openly disgusted by black people, but over the course of the film becomes less explicitly racist and more, er, accidentally, endearingly racist. This framing impacts the whole film, as Shirley's (Mahershala Ali) struggle to survive the violent racism and homophobia in the American South is viewed through - and thus undermined by - Vallelonga's ignorant lens.
Shirley's justified fears about having to always appear as respectable and non-threatening as possible aren't explored, but met with Vallelongaıs quippy, mocking assertions that Shirley should just loosen up and enjoy himself, because racism isnıt really that big a deal! Likewise, Vallelonga is given credit for rescuing Shirley from acts of aggression and violence with his winking hardscrabble charm, because it's definitely his jokes and not his white privilege, because again: racism, not a big deal.
The moral of Green Book - which was written and directed by white men - is that a black man who is justifiably wary of a world which repeatedly attempts to murder him for his skin colour has the same amount of soul-searching and personal transformation to undertake as a white racist, and that those two people simply spending time together will solve racism.
Ali and Mortensen put in great performances, and there are some good jokes. But that isn't enough to justify this film existing and perpetuating the message that it does. The phrase 'Green Book' refers to the era's directory of places that offered safety, comfort and a haven from racism for people of colour. Emotionally, this film would not meet the criteria. It offers escapism and comfort to white people only. And that's just not good enough anymore.