By Poulomi Das
Over the last few years, Mahershala Ali has elevated just about anything he’s starred in. Even before he received universal acclaim for his award-winning turn in Moonlight, Ali had already registered his quiet gentleness in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Netflix’s House of Cards.
Returning to a starring role after two years, it’s this very charm that Ali brings forth in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book – making the road-trip film sing at a pitch it otherwise wasn’t equipped to. Inspired from a true story, Green Book revolves around the unlikely friendship between Don Shirley (Ali), a multilingual African-American pianist and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a racist NY bouncer hired to drive him for a concert tour through unfriendly route.
Set in 1962 America, the film boasts of an intolerant and divisive climate that on first glance might not seem very different from the one we live in right now. It was a time when African-Americans travelled in the Jim Crow South at their own risk, facing hostility (and even death) at many public establishments. Naturally, the film’s title is derived from the handbook that was designed to “give the Negro traveller information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments, and to make his trips more enjoyable.” An indispensable travel-guide at the time, the Green Book listed friendly and safe places for African-Americans to stay and eat, besides offering them tips on how to avoid trouble.
It’s admirable how Farrelly – best known for making exaggerated, dudebro comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary – mines this grim premise of American bigotry to extract a crowd-pleasing, funny, and warm albeit predictable buddy comedy. It helps that Mortensen, cast in a rare comic role, is in top form, eliciting laughs by the minute as the ill-mannered gluttonous buffoon, resistant to – and awed by – the elegance of a black man. Together, Ali and Mortensen, bring to screen an unforgettable chemistry that’s poignant, rousing, and which single-handedly enlivens the broad strokes of the film’s script.
Yet, for a film that underscores the ability of American racism to permeate the length and breadth of public consciousness, Green Book takes an inexplicable viewpoint of racism. Much of the film’s commentary on racism is designed in the past tense and even the condemnation comes with a straightforward solution. As if implying, that racism is one of those problems that once existed and is now eradicated. Even Tony’s bigotry, is shrouded in layers of sympathy – the kind displayed by well-meaning, but eventually racist, friends and family. It’s this superficial self-congratulatory cliched tone that threatens to undo the bickering and bonding of the odd-couple pairing for much of the film’s two-hour runtime.
An indispensable travel-guide at the time, the Green Book listed friendly and safe places for African-Americans to stay and eat, besides offering them tips on how to avoid trouble.
But Green Book is also, one of those crowd-pleasers that hinges on the ability of its leads to overwrite its source material. Together, Mortensen and Ali make it near impossible for anyone to take their eyes off them as they grow, learn, and unlearn, with each other. These two actors and their chemistry create a mini-movie inside a movie, that is at once, deeply satisfying and thoroughly entertaining.
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