Does Betty like butter … er?
First things first: racism isn’t funny. It’s surprising that something so important can be forgotten so often, but here we are with another cinematic example of the opposite. What’s worse is that the story director/co-writer Peter Farrelly is bringing to the big screen with intentional beats rendering a wisecracking Italian-American as hilariously racist had the potential of actually saying something. And while it would be easy to blame his name—one synonymous with Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and the grossly tone-deaf Shallow Hal—the real culprit this time around is Hollywood and audiences in general. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) even has a line that encapsulates their collectively misguided way of thinking, “Dignity always prevails.” We assume the message will negate the journey’s unavoidable trouble.
Green Book banks on this result. And if my theater is any indication, they’re right to do so. I admit to laughing a couple times myself when the uncouth Tony “Lip” (Viggo Mortensen) chortles at Shirley for never having heard Aretha Franklin sing or eaten fried chicken since those are “intrinsic pieces” of Black America. The film pretends we’re laughing at Tony, but we know better in this day and age. We’re really laughing at the stereotype. We’re laughing at the Black man who “acts White” rather than simply seeing him as a human being with differing tastes than other human beings. Tony isn’t therefore comic relief. He’s a surrogate for all non-Black viewers that think they know what it means to be Black in this country.
Why then is he the star? Why is our ignorance the focal point? Because we want to believe our racism is harmless of course. We’re the “good ones” who like to “bust other people’s balls” and would never bat an eye if someone spewed racially or ethnically motivated jabs at us because we “get it.” So we let the real life Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga tell his father’s story (alongside Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie) since that angle makes our surrogate into the hero. He’s the one who changes and evolves and maybe even helps others like him alter their limited perceptions too. He’s the one who protects Shirley in the Deep South for money and inevitably has his eyes opened to the “bad racists” he hates too.
I don’t want to say that anyone who doesn’t recognize this problem is him/herself a racist, but I’m not sure that isn’t the case. Take the title of the film for example: Green Book. This is the title of a traveling guide African Americans needed as a tool to survive a Jim Crow south through documentation of those places a Black man or woman was allowed to stay, eat in, or walk through. It’s a book Shirley’s record label gives Tony without explaining its significance and one that Shirley himself never touches. It’s therefore such a small part of the film bearing its name (besides a moment manufactured to provide Tony clarity about injustices he’ll never combat himself) that one could say Tony Lip is it personified.
By making him the star of this tale, he becomes the Green Book. He’s the white savior from New York forgiven for throwing out glasses Black maintenance men drank from in his house because he’s willing to punch a White plantation owner that won’t let Shirley use the interior bathroom. This film pretends to be about a book that saved lives only to say, “Dr. Shirley will be fine because a good White is on the case.” But that thought process is flawed too considering Tony is Italian. As the film shows (and anyone who has a racist family member that ever cracked the joke knows), one could say Italians don’t understand what it means to be Black because Black people are here to experience it instead.
What happens if you flip the perspective and make this film from Shirley’s point-of-view, though? Here’s the guy that’s truly worth our time. A genius pianist who lives atop Carnegie Hall with three doctorates, he’s fluent in multiple languages and homosexual (a detail barely even scratched besides yet another opportunity to make Tony a knight in shining armor). We never go into his mindset as far as why he’d want to tour the south when he could have made more money staying up north because we’re too busy watching Tony get shone as the bruiser willing to pawn his best watch before ever becoming a murderer for hire with the mob. We never truly understand Shirley’s loneliness except to have him leave safety long enough to be saved.
All I could think while watching Green Book is how much better it would have been with Shirley’s struggles highlighting the prologue instead of Tony’s. But then it would have been a drama because any wisecracks Tony lobbed towards Don’s assistant at Carnegie would fall flat since we wouldn’t know his loudmouth was really a “sweet guy when you get down to it.” The lengths Farrelly and company go to make the internal turmoil tearing Shirley apart a lesson for Tony to learn rather than an indictment on our nation’s abhorrent history is unfathomable. And to dismiss that dereliction of duty as a casualty of making a “feel good” film doesn’t cut it. Because who actually feels good? Everyone watching or those who believe themselves allies too?
I get why everyone involved signed up, though. To them this type of representation is better than no representation and kudos to Mortensen and Ali for providing memorable turns as emotionally dramatic as they are infectiously humorous (once you move past the fact that the former is literally playing a stereotype, no matter how true to life it might prove). They deserve the accolades and could be nominated for Oscars, but this story they’ve attached themselves to could have been just as successful if told from the more poignant and important vantage point. Putting Shirley in positions where he’d die without Tony isn’t the same as Tony growing as a man with Don’s diction lessons. Shirley being educated shouldn’t be a prerequisite for Tony to change.
Someone explains how it’s not enough for Shirley to be adored by white people for his music from a distance. He must show the courage to stand in front of them as more than a name on a record. This film would have done good to apply that same lesson to itself because while it goes through the motions to show two disparate people overcoming the dividing line of race, it lacks the courage and conviction to point its finger at an audience that needs to come to terms with their complicity in upholding those lines. Making Tony funny and simpleminded reinforces that smart audience members don’t have to worry. They laugh because they think they aren’t the racists when they should be laughing to realize they are.
 Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks © 2018 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS AND STORYTELLER DISTRIBUTION CO., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 Linda Cardellini as Dolores Vallelonga in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly. Photo Credit: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks © 2018 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS AND STORYTELLER DISTRIBUTION CO., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks © 2018 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS AND STORYTELLER DISTRIBUTION CO., LLC. All Rights Reserved.