Somewhere I heard that the stage is where an actor shines, while in film it’s the director who tells the story. It’s been a useful piece of information when I find favorite actors in crap projects – Michael Caine, I’m lookin’ at you – but Green Book is not a crap project. It simply left me unsatisfied.
***Beyond this point, Thar be Spoilers***
Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali (Academy Award winner for Best Actor in Moonlight) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) as the world’s most unlikely traveling companions, is something I’ve been clamoring to see: timely, starring two of my favorite actors, neither of whom has ever phoned in a performance, and with the expensive look and feel of what in our family we call Oscar Bait. As with Widows we went opening weekend, voting with our dollars for Black and Women led films.
It’s no one thing that disappointed me; taken in it’s entirety, it is a beautiful film with superb attention to period detail (once ludicrous, like an outhouse apparently on the patio of an expensive White home, just to make sure we Get It). Cars, glassware, clothing, language, and music all are spot on, but my first bit of dissonance was the defiantly cheerful soundtrack. It’s a wonderfully up-tempo soundtrack, comprised of African American artists driving our heroes along their journey, but I surely don’t think we heard any Blues, even when the moment called for Blues.
And music is the topic of the scene which sends me cringing down into the imaginary nautilus shell where I mentally retreat when something is deeply, egregiously, impossibly embarrassing. If you’re a fan of Fawlty Towers, it’s the moment in every episode in which Basil finds himself caught in a humiliating trap of his own making. Here it’s a single line, and I sort of feel it coming throughout the scene, it hovers and spins and I pray it’s not going to fall out of Viggo’s face, but it does, it truly does, and he says, “I know more about your people than you do,” and I want to die. I don’t remember Dr. Shirley’s reply, because it takes me a minute to climb back up out of the Shell of Embarrassment.
No, Tony, you don’t. You’ve traveled some distance and come to see this man as, well, a Man, but you don’t know jack shit about him or his people, even as you begin to understand why he needs to drink a fifth of Cutty every night. Loving Aretha Franklin just means you have good taste in music. What you know about Dr. Shirley’s people is the racist BS of your White culture, what Black people have shown you or, in the case of recording artists, what the Studio wants you to see.
I need to address the Fried Chicken Issue, since it comes up repeatedly and every time I sprained my eyeballs rolling them. Unnecessarily used to display the chasm of education and manners existing between the two men it only gets worse. Dr. Shirley’s unfamiliarity with fried chicken is explained away by his being a prodigy who left his native Florida Panhandle as a nine-year-old boy, and I am thinking, What…? That little boy ate some fried chicken before he left the South. Perhaps he didn’t like eating greasy fried chicken with his fingers and without a napkin – this is perfectly in character – but puhleeeze, in what Universe did ANY child, Black, White, or Purple not eat fried chicken by age nine growing up below the Mason-Dixon line? None, that’s how many, Zero, Nada, Zilch.
Later, at a fancy White dinner party in his honor, Dr. Shirley is treated to what the White man’s Staff (all Black) tell him Dr. Shirley will enjoy eating as a returning son of the South: platters of fried chicken and watermelon. And I thought, Really? Is that what Southern Black people would truly offer? No collard greens? Mac & cheese? Barbecue? Whatever Southern state you’re in, it is proud of it’s barbecue and owes it almost entirely to Black people. They wouldn’t offer a juicy T-bone? Was fried chicken merely the response the Black folk knew the White folk wanted to hear? A dish all would be comfortable with, thus sparing the White folk any embarrassment over unfamiliar foods? Hmmm…. That was the detail I was looking for, even to be told, No, Really, they’d give him fried chicken.
Praise should be given to one detail which might have seemed out of time or character: Tony’s acceptance of Dr. Shirley’s sexuality. It rang 100% true to me, and here is why: my daddy was a couple years older and grew up in Brooklyn, a 1st generation, blue-collar American. He also managed bars, restaurants, and clubs, so when Tony says, “…. I understand the world is a complicated place…” yes, yes I believe him, because my daddy understood that, too, and probably would have put it just as simply. It’s something for which I am eternally grateful.
Of course I enjoyed it – It was beautiful, brilliantly acted by two masters of the art, gorgeously appointed and cheerfully told. The intention was to make me feel good (without having to think too much) and I did, mostly. But I can’t shake that unsatisfied feeling of lost opportunity. Paul says the grittier stuff I wanted would have been a different movie, and he’s right. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen were up to that different movie, but this one, Green Book – in which the actual book is fleetingly referenced maybe twice and the need for it winked at – left me feeling like when I eat ice cream for dinner: full of the uncomfortable knowledge I’ve gotten little nutritional value for all those calories.