Two men — one black, the other white, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a ’62 Cadillac DeVille rolling down a highway debating black culture. So much is explored in “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s bromance about Tony Lip, a hunky Bronx-born Italian-American Copacabana bouncer, and Dr. Don Shirley, an erudite, multilingual, closeted gay, classically trained pianist who lives above Carnegie Hall.
Watching this picture as an African-American I was predisposed to think it was going the way of others exploring connections between black and white characters: Oh, here we go, the Magic Negro trope is here again. I could not be more pleasantly surprised and excited to be proven wrong. There is a saying in filmmaking: sometimes what is the most profound thing is to keep it simple.
“Green Book” is simple but honest to the characters and time. Viggo Mortensen, who always embodies a role like a new costume, is amazing as Tony Lip. It’s not just the offhanded way he mouths off Calabrese-inflected Italian, it’s the way he organically brings to life this guy, a man without pretensions. Conversely, Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley as a self-made man, who eschews all pretensions of what black men were prejudiced to be defined as. He speaks clearly, does not condone violence or theft. Ali plays Dr. Shirley as a self-modeled man of his times. Fighting against all social norms.
With this picture, Farrelly has evolved into a classic director in the vein of Billy Wilder. The humor is juxtaposed by pathos. Some of the most powerful moments simply seem to happen: black workers down South pausing to view a black man, immaculately suited, stepping out a car driven by a white chauffeur. Or two men in the rain, when one says: “If I’m not white enough, and I’m not black enough, and I’m not man enough, then what am I?” When Tony Lip gets Dr. Shirley out of a dicey situation at a YMCA, he simply tells him, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been working in clubs in New York City my whole life.
I know it’s … it’s a complicated world.’
Simple but complex. In “Green Book,” the characters are who they are. They don’t change as people; the worlds they embody evolve because these two different men simply become lifelong friends. How profound. How complex.
John Singleton was the first African-American nominated for the directing Oscar, for his 1991 debut, “Boyz N the Hood.” His other films include “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Shaft.”