Despite the Golden Globe and Producers Guild of America awards that it has won, Peter Farrelly’s hit film Green Book is facing political trouble that seems sure to increase by the time of the Academy Awards on February 24. An army of critics has come to see Green Book as perpetuating a dated, racial liberalism that does more harm than good.
Green Book tells the story of the 1962 trip through the Jim Crow South taken by an African-American musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at the Copacabana night club, who has time on his hands because the Copacabana has been closed for renovations.
In Green Book, Don Shirley is the one with money and education, but it is Tony with his muscle and smarts who is the hero of the movie. Tony saves Don from beatings at the hands of bigots and corrupt Southern police, and it is this emphasis on Tony that has led critics of the film to see Green Book as a lopsided tale of black-white relations.
The film takes its title from a guide book first published in the ’30s that was designed to point out safe places in America for black travelers to stay. The film is premised on how little the South of the early ’60s had changed from when the Green Book was first written.
Nobody has made the case against Green Book more carefully than the essayist and film critic Wesley Morris in his recent New York Times article, “Friendship or Fantasy?” Morris sees the movie evoking a series of liberal pieties about racial relations in America that make it difficult for blacks and whites to be honest with each other today.
Morris contends that Green Book updates the sentimentality of the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy, in which the white Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) and Hoke, her chauffeur (Morgan Freeman), bond over a period of 25 years (1948-1973). Still worse from Morris’ point of view is the way Green Book recycles the rescue themes of such films as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Blind Side, in which whites of good will come to the aid of African-Americans.
There is no denying that there are sentimental moments in Green Book and that it is Tony who protects Don, not Don who protects Tony. But if we take a step back in time and look at Green Book in terms of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the classic black-white American tale of a trip through the South, Green Book takes on a much richer meaning than the one Morris and the film’s other critics ascribe to it.
At the core of Huckleberry Finn is the idea that whites need to make amends for their bigotry in any relationship they have with someone of color. It is an idea that is crucial to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the person of color is a South Sea islander, and a century later it is the idea that shapes Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones, in which two convicts, one white, one black, escape prison handcuffed together and develop a bond despite the white convict’s racism
In this type of literature and film, it is the white character who makes the greatest change. In Twain’s novel, Huck changes both explicitly and implicitly in his relationship with the escaped slave Jim. The two meet because Huck is running away from a father who beats him and Jim is running away from his owner, Miss Watson, who, he's learned, has been planning to sell him.
At the start of the novel, Huck sees Jim as his inferior, but slowly he comes to realize how mistaken he has been. When Jim cries over being homesick for his wife and children, Huck has no doubt of the depth of Jim’s feelings. “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n,” Huck says.
Even more important, when Huck hurts Jim’s feelings by taking advantage of his trust, Huck admits his wrongdoing after an inner struggle. “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n---er—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither,” Huck confesses.
In the last third of the book, when Jim is caught and taken prisoner by whites hoping to get the reward for his capture, Huck does his best to rescue Jim. Significantly, he makes the decision to help Jim in a passage in which he recalls how much Jim has done for him and how much he owes Jim.
Jim, who has learned to trust Huck, is finally able to go back to his family because Miss Watson sets him free in her will. Twain does not make Huck the instrument of Jim’s freedom, nor does Twain suggest that Huck and Jim will spend the rest of their lives as close friends. At the end of the novel Huck is determined to light out for the territory on his own rather than go back to living with the Widow Douglas. Jim, by contrast, happily returns to his wife and family.
The measure of Huck’s change is his ability to see Jim in a new light, but Twain, who years later would write an essay titled “The United States of Lyncherdom,” never implies that Huck and Jim’s friendship symbolizes America’s racial future.
So, too, with the modesty of Green Book, which takes place one year before the historic March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Nothing in the film suggests that Tony is going to be in attendance at that march. His amends are personal, not ideological or political.
What we have in place of Huck’s apology to Jim is Tony’s appreciation of Don Shirley. He invites Don to stop by his apartment in the Bronx for Christmas, and when Don arrives, Tony welcomes him. Tony is no longer working for Don. His welcome is spontaneous and genuine.
Tony has become very different from the man we saw in the opening of Green Book, who threw in the trash two glasses that the African-American handymen at his apartment drank from. The film emphasizes this inner change still further when Tony’s wife hugs Don and whispers in his ear that she knows the tender letters Tony has been writing her from the road reflect Don’s influence.
Green Book concludes with a note posted on the screen that tells us Don and Tony remained friends throughout their lives, but the film never suggests that they became buddies. Don is headed back to his musical career and his apartment above Carnegie Hall. Tony is going to remain in his Bronx apartment and continue to find work (although no longer as a bouncer) at the Copacabana.