by Cat Edwards
To an uninformed viewer, the words ‘Green Book’ may have no significance at all. Peter Farelly’s cinematic work takes its name from ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’, a book from the 1960s that listed the safe spaces that would accept people of colour in the southern states of America. The information in this book would be of vital importance to African Americans – it would not be sought out by white people. As a film title, it sets an excellent premise for a work that explores the complexities of race and the ways in which issues of race and class often go unnoticed by the privileged few.
The film follows the celebrated classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as they tour the American South and encounter the racial and class barriers that were in place at the time. They belong to different tiers in the class hierarchy, however Tony’s race often allows him into establishments that Don cannot access, regardless of his talent and fame.
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen have enigmatic chemistry throughout. Their characters contrast and complement each other, each showing their respective powers within society and how, for people of colour and the working classes, society was, and in many respects remains, a hostile environment to the respective communities. Ali’s performance explores the nuances of racial identity and how even the minutiae of a conversation can have a huge impact on one’s perception of their social identity. The audience is drawn to his character and can easily empathise with him. Viggo Mortensen’s performance is strong, however at times it feels cartoonish in its portrayal of an Italian American from New York. He does however manage to engross the audience in moments of true grit and character development.
This film explores complex themes in a way that is beautiful to watch. The audience is gripped by the central characters and the film raises many questions as to how racial and class issues have been addressed in recent history. Society has come a long way since the 1960s, but we still have a long way to go.