Coming to this review of Green Book days into the film’s theatrical release and months after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, you've likely heard about some of the problems Peter Farrelly’s inversion of Driving Miss Daisy poses to the enlightened critic. Written and directed by white dudes, told from the perspective of an Italian-American hired as the chauffeur of a black concert pianist, and leading to a coda where the aesthete is a surprise guest at a reformed racist family’s dinner, Green Book is a cornucopia of problematics—a film which, from the outside at least, reeks of the pungence of white guilt. And we might ask, in a time where the discourse is so heavily influenced by future awards: what more attractive aroma lurks in the air?
That Green Book flips the archetypes of a more regressive version of itself is almost besides the point. Anyone writing after James Baldwin—whose The Devil Finds Work remains as elegantly argued a political engagement with the cinema as one is likely to find—would be remiss not to consider the surface messaging of the film’s scenario: a black man, so elevated in stature and so refined in temperament, and yet so devoted to his white driver, as to be nothing less than the projection of a racist nation deluded about the implications of slavery, reconstruction, and segregation. Similar figures can be identified in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Defiant Ones, where Sidney Poitier’s characters go to unreasonable lengths to console and save bigoted white folk, assuring the addressed (white) viewer that no matter how hateful their actions, no matter how unspeakable the history of their country’s racism, the established order will not come under threat. To some, Green Book’s Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) may seem of this lineage, utilized here as means for the white driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen) to overcome prejudice and thereby comfort a primarily white audience of its moral supremacy.
Yet I’d venture Green Book is far more endearing, precise, and tricky than this characterization might lead you to expect—and for that matter, what you might expect of a prestige project from one of the directors of Shallow Hal, Kingpin, and more recently the remake of The Three Stooges. The film’s dramatic template, of an odd couple embarking on a road trip where they will clash and consolidate difference, is a Farrelly staple—as is its structuring duality. In Dumb and Dumber, Stuck on You, and Me, Myself & Irene, the paired, sometimes physically conjoined, other times split-personality protagonists were set on a predetermined crash course. Here that structuring duality is racial. To put it as glibly as the film’s critics might: it’s as concrete as black and white.
Introduced in a whirling opening scene at a New York nightclub where he nabs the owner’s top-hat only so he can return it later, single-handedly breaks up a scuffle between two would-be dons and manages to throw the culprits out without once interrupting the live band, Tony is a resourceful bastard—and as the next scene will prove (in which he discards two glasses simply because they had been used by black repairmen) a racist one also. So it is with great irony that days before embarking on a tour through the pre-civil rights Deep South Dr. Shirley would call upon him to be his chauffeur and road manager. Well aware of the obstacles ahead, unaware of his own implication in them, Tony pragmatically surmises: “Believe me, you and the Deep South—there’s gonna be problems.”
Farrelly films are reductiones ad absurdum of human behavior; they distill motivations to mannerisms. This makes for a formal problem. How can the director work in a tradition where outward traits are indicative of inward identities without appealing to naturalized difference—namely that certain behaviors are distinctly black and others wholly white, and that humor should arise from deviations of these perceived norms? In an opening act focused primarily on Tony and his family, Green Book parades us through a community of clichés, and in doing so, seems to invite this objection. Set in the Bronx in 1962, this nearly 20-minute chapter contains loudmouth Italian-Americans, numerous spaghetti dinners, a hot dog eating contest, and shadowed figures associated with the mafia. As comfortable in these environments as he will be with the lower classes of Louisiana and Mississippi—which is to say, with the black people he will interact with on the periphery of Dr. Shirley’s concerts—Tony makes the seamless transition from mafiosi to mulatto.
At many points along their journey, Tony and Shirley are playing what is stereotypically presumed to be the role of the other. Tony takes it upon himself to educate Doc in what he thinks are the customs of “his people,” just as Shirley ghostwrites Tony's love letters and teaches him proper diction. As if introducing his boss to fried chicken and Little Richard weren’t indication enough, Tony makes his point plenty plain. After being pulled out of jail for assaulting a police officer who uttered an Italian slur, he emphatically declares that he is blacker than Shirley. Tony, of course, sees no problem with his utterance. “If you said all Guineas liked pizza and spaghetti and meatballs,” he retorts, thinking himself wise while chomping down on a greasy chicken breast, “I’m not gonna get insulted [sic].”
Where past iterations of the archetype Baldwin identified were meant to reassure white audiences of their own harmlessness, Green Book’s Shirley presents them with a conundrum. The film’s very premise demonstrates an entrenched desire to fit behavior into racialized categories. The structuring inversion presupposes something of its audience: that they know what is traditionally understood as black and what is traditionally understood as white. This classification is necessarily exclusionary; it assumes not merely that one is the opposite of the other but that one is also the lesser. Green Book is not the story of a black man learning how to act his color by a white man. Rather, it is the story of a white man, in collaboration with the forces around him, imposing a definition of blackness on someone whose identity can only seem to be defined by negation or forced by prejudice.
This is the double-standard the film’s scenario evinces. While Tony can freely associate with whatever set of stereotypes he’d like, even ones that may be demeaning to his person and contrary to his complexion, Dr. Shirley has no choice in the matter. For Tony, blackness is a structure of feeling. For Shirley, it is deemed intrinsic, signifying the type of music he can play, his social status and even what he likes to eat. And so, the duality of the film, which demands that Tony be black and Doc be white, is revealed for what it is: a matter of privilege, a false dilemma.