2018 has been a good year for films tackling race issues. From BlacKkKlansman, to Sorry to Bother You, to The Hate U Give, the medium of film has made positive contributions to this ongoing discussion. Green Book adds another entry to this year’s discussion, and is possibly the best of all of them.
This film gives you a glimpse into what it would look like for two men who have seemingly fundamental differences to spend every day together for two months. These two men – Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip and African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley – spend these two months driving together through the deep south in the 1960s. Predictably, issues of class and race come up repeatedly and these two men are forced to learn about each other and each other’s cultures.
Since Tony and Don spend a lot of time together in the car, much of the film revolves around their discussions about life. Tony is racist, but not aggressively so. He clearly sees Don and other African-Americans as less-than, but he has a good heart and is willing to learn and accept Don as a person. The movie does a good job of giving their relationship its time to breathe, so that it is believable as they begin to grow closer to one another.
This relationship is brought to life by the great performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Mortensen gives perhaps a career-best performance as Tony Lip. He is almost unrecognizable, as he has transformed into this character. Following up his Oscar winning performance in Moonlight, Ali delivers yet another recognition worthy role. These two characters start at two different ends of a spectrum and, by the end, settle on a middle ground where they both understand each other.
Green Book deals with race and class in big ways, and as I mentioned, most of it is based on these characters’ discussions inside a car. The camera does a subtle trick that is really effective during these conversations. Since Don sits in the backseat of the car while Tony drives, the camera functions with a very shallow depth of field and shifts focus depending on which character is talking. This is prominent at the beginning, but as the film progresses, it lessens, because the characters begin to understand each other more and more, making their positions clearer.
This movie will easily be in awards consideration once March rolls around, and it will be largely because of the performances. They anchor this movie and make it the reason it is so effective. Green Book delivers the emotional and social beats that are necessary to make a film like this work well.