As the coronavirus spreads in China, so does fury at the government
One of the most depressing hallmarks of our time is a tendency to read the worst motives into any public statements, including films, on thorny subjects like race and gender. We seem increasingly unwilling to give each other the benefit of any doubt.
Some of the reactions to the newly crowned Oscar winner for best picture, Green Book, are a perfect illustration of this trend. The New York Times raged against the true-ish story of a black pianist finding friendship with a blue-collar Italian bruiser for the crime of “retrograde portrayals of race dynamics.” (Given that the movie is set in the 1960s, it’s hard to see how it could have any other kind.) The Hollywood Reporter fumed that it tells the story from the white protagonist’s point of view. (There’s a simple reason for that too—the movie’s screenwriter is the white protagonist’s real-life son.)
Green Book is part of a long tradition of mining odd-couple pairings for humor. Classical pianist Don Shirley hires bigoted nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga to drive him on a concert tour through the segregation-era South. Both men are consciously exaggerated types. The fascinating contrast at the center of the story is to what degree and for what reason each of them chooses to be.
Tony (Viggo Mortensen) wears clichés about being Italian as a badge of honor. His bada-boom, bada-bing colloquialisms help him blend seamlessly with mobbed-up guys in his neighborhood even as he uses his good-fella routine to graciously deflect their job offers. As he explains, if someone suggests “guineas” only eat pasta and pizza, he’ll laugh and tell them he’s proud of it.
Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on the other hand, strives to distance himself from caricatures ascribed to African-Americans. In overly mannered tones, he informs Tony that he’s never tasted fried chicken or heard the music of Chubby Checker. To excel in his field, he’s had to carve out a cultured persona so far from what prejudiced whites expect that he lives his entire life as a performance.
Though Green Book would have done better to offer more nuanced characterizations (including of the moustache-twirling Southern bad guys), this feels more like the common failing of shorthand screenwriting than a lack of racial awareness. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman suffers from the same problem in the exact same way.
The film’s treatment of Shirley’s homosexuality is more impressive for being based in realism and resisting the easy bait of equating racism with religious convictions about sexuality. A brief scene that implies Shirley has an anonymous encounter with a stranger in a YMCA shower hardly paints a positive picture of his emotional and spiritual health. Nor does his severe alcohol abuse. And though Tony comments that after working as a bouncer in New York clubs for 20 years, he’s not shocked, neither does he say anything affirming. He does use plenty of profanity though that pushes the bounds of the PG-13 rating.
In a scathing review that echoes the complaints reverberating through Hollywood now, The New Yorker accused the film of offering a—gasp!—optimistic vision of racial reconciliation. This charge is true. Even toward the end of Green Book, after his heart has changed, Tony says things that make us (and Dr. Shirley) cringe a bit. That’s the point.
We cannot love another person while dissecting every word they say for potential offense. We cannot share real community where a spirit of fear pervades. Where will is clearly good, offer grace. For that matter, where will might plausibly be good, offer the benefit of the doubt, and then offer grace. As Dr. Shirley does in finally letting Tony—with all his poor diction and appalling table manners—into his life.
Green Book set out to be an amusing, heartwarming tale about two real-life buddies from an imperfect past whose unlikely friendship casts a hopeful light on our future. There’s nothing wrong—and a lot right—with celebrating a movie like that.