Friday, January 18, 2019

“Green Book”: Driving Mr. Daisy

I’m firmly convinced that as an actor Mahershala Ali can do just about anything. I first became aware of Ali in 2016, via his role in Barry Jenkins’ award-winning film, Moonlight. Ali played a South Florida drug dealer who befriends a needy young boy, and the supporting actor Oscar he took home is a testament to his uncanny blend of tenderness and menace. To my surprise, he also popped up in a second 2016 film, Hidden Figures. In that paean to the role of African-American women within America’s space program, the drug dealer had evolved into a straight-arrow military man with romance on his mind. Yup, once again he made me a believer.

Now comes Green Book, in which Ali has me accepting him as a classically-trained jazz pianist, being chauffeured around the Deep South by Viggo Mortensen’s dese-dem-and-dose blue-collar Italian, at a time when segregation is still in full swing. Naturally, the two have nothing in common at the start of their journey, but are fast friends by its conclusion. Green Book is intended to be heartwarming, and many people (including the Golden Globes voters of the Hollywood Foreign Press) have found it just that. But I must admit I’m not one of this film’s greatest fans.

You see, although I buy Ali as  a piano virtuoso, I have a hard time with his performance away from the keyboard. It’s really not the actor’s fault. Though this film is based on a true story (and is co-written by the son of Mortensen’s character), the role of Dr. Don Shirley seems more of a cinematic construct than a human being. Obviously the intent was to portray him as a complicated and fundamentally lonely soul: a man whose skin color cuts him off from the white world and whose classical education makes him uncomfortable among his fellow blacks. The film also touches on his homosexuality, a detail that some of his surviving family members have questioned. Personally, I have no problem accepting any of these basic strands of Shirley’s character, but the screenwriters have hamstrung Ali by giving him language that seems flatly unconvincing. Yes, he’s supposed to be a man of culture, but his dialogue throughout the film is so stiff and formal that he seems less a human being than a walking, talking thesaurus. And some of his behavior—demanding that Mortensen’s Tony Lip improve his diction, insisting on dictating improved versions of Tony’s letters to his wife back home—just doesn’t ring true.

There are lots of other heavy-handed aspects of this screenplay as well. The writers seem to be working extra-hard to make their points about cultural differences. It’s cute that Tony gets Don to try snacking on KFC (and then flinging the bones out of the car window), but can we really believe that a man born and raised in Florida has never in his life tasted fried chicken?

Maybe it’s because screenwriter Nick Vallelonga is Tony’s son, but Mortensen’s character seems as real as Ali’s mostly does not. I’m told by Italians of my acquaintance that those noisy family dinner table scenes are absolutely on the money. Interestingly, while Don Shirley’s relatives have loudly expressed their disapproval of this film, a number of Hollywood’s prominent African-Americans (like the not-easily-pleased Harry Belafonte) have given it their full support. I think they’re glad to see audiences recognize a time when black travelers south of the Mason-Dixon line were not permitted to dine in most restaurants and stay in most hotels. Hence the need for the legendary Negro Motorist Green Book that gives this frustrating film its title.

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