Mark Harris (no relation) makes some great points about “Green Book,” a movie I wasn’t overly thrilled by — for exactly these reasons. Still, the National Board Of Review just named it Best Picture and gave Viggo Mortensen the prize for Best Actor, too. That’s not keeping it from tanking at the box office, though.
To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at Green Book’s strategic and timeworn take on racism — a “we all have something to learn” approach that, on paper, may mark it as both a reaction to the polarization of the Trump era and a symptom of the both-sides-ism that often defines it. Tony is a tough working-class-Italian family man who applies for a job driving Don Shirley through the South. That might be a reasonable setup through which to explore some of the, what’s it called again, “anxiety” that many white people felt when Obama was elected, except that the movie stacks the deck against Don from the first time we meet him. Chilly, aloof, and so refined that he literally lives above Carnegie Hall, Don conducts Tony’s job interview in gold raiment, sitting on a thronelike chair on a raised platform. So tense he cannot smile, so stiff that he barely permits himself to use contractions, Don is an emperor, albeit of a kingdom of two (he has a manservant).
Another movie might have explored Don’s costumed hauteur from within, understanding it as a defense, a calculation, even a performance. (The real Shirley was also a psychologist, a fact about which Green Book expresses virtually no interest.) But this film uses his remoteness geometrically; it’s one point on a triangle, exactly as far from the apex that represents a warm and human ideal as the other point — Tony’s unregenerate coarseness and frank racism — is. Green Book sometimes feels less imagined than measured with a protractor. Tony needs to stop referring to black people as “jungle bunnies,” but also Don needs to stop saying highfalutin things like, “It is my feeling that your diction, however charming it may be in the tristate area, could use some finessing.” Tony needs to broaden his horizons and learn how to write his wife a nice letter (he ends up taking dictation, Cyrano-style, from Don, who naturally has nobody to write nice letters to), but also Don needs to learn to enjoy fried chicken and Aretha Franklin and be more comfortable in his skin. Tony needs to grow up (because racism is, in movies like Green Book, primarily a sign of immaturity), but also Don needs to loosen up; he’s so constricted that he owns a chess set with only white pieces! Tony needs to get a little smarter, but also Don is too smart, like Obama was. “It don’t look fun to be that smart,” Tony — so unrefined yet so observant about deeper truths! — writes home. (Don didn’t need to help him with that sentence.)