The White Saviour

Film review: Green Book (Director: Perter Farrelly)

By Sascha Krieger

On the surface things look great when it comes to diversity in film: out of the eight films nominated for a „Best Picture“ Academy Award this year, thee deal with racism and equality for people of colour, two of them, BlackKkKlansman and Black Panther even include „black“ in the title, all feature strong performances by very diverse casts, Black Panther only has two white cast members. Following Wonder Woman and shortly joined by Captain Marvel it is praised for infusing the super hero and blockbuster fields with diversity and the chance to inspire groups of people traditionally on the sidelines of such films. All good in Hollywood? Not really. The year’s most remarkable film about race relations and discrimination, Barry Jenkins‘ If Beale street Could Talk, a film with an almost all-black cast, an all-black story and told from a decidedly black view-point – as well as being a masterpiece in its own right – was snubbed at the nominations. The question why is hard to answer but there is something it lacks that the other films have: a white saviour, the traditional benevolent white man (usually) who helps the non-whites to win the day. Black Panther has this in the form of Martin Freeman’s CIA agent and even BlacKkKlansman, while offering a story driven by the black protagonist, has a figure for the white audience to identify with in Adam Driver’s indispensable undercover cop. See how even this review only mentions white actors‘ names. Here you go.

So it is no surprise that Green Book, winning a „Best Musical or Comedy“ Golden Globe, is a darling of this year’s award season. It follows the white saviour storyline to its logical conclusion. The film, „inspired by true events“, is told from the perspective of Italian-American night club bouncer Tony Vallelonga. A casual racist, we see him in an near-opening sequence, after having established his no-nonsense toughness, in a nicely and nuancedly observed miniature of everyday racism: when two black repairmen do a job in Tony’s kitchen, all men in the family are gathered to keep an eye on them. When they’ve left, Tony throws the glasses the two men had drunk from into the garbage. A good set-up as soon the man called Tony Lip finds himself to be the driver and personal assistant of legendary black concert pianist Don Shirley. Together they embark on a tour that takes them all the way to the deep south. This is 1962, the last heyday of segregation.

The road trip mainly consists first of a long drawn-out clash of cultures in which Viggo Mortensen’s radically physical strong man can shite with wit, entertaining quips and an anarchic sense of rule-breaking that causes many funny scenes. On the other hand is Mahershala Ali who at first struggles to make the sophisticated, somewhat arrogant and certainly far removed from ordinary life Shirley relatable. When Tony starts educating Shirley on what he thinks is „typically black“, Shirley eventually gives in, enjoys fried chicken and ends up playing rock’n roll in a bar.  Director Peter Farrelly, together with his brother responsible for gems such as Dumb and Dumber, manages to take the cringe-worthiness out of the scene but not by countering but by affirming the racist stereotypes and re-inventing them as identity. From a white point of view, as director and writing team, including Tony’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga, are white. This is Tony’s view, a white man’s view, the black protagonist not being on an equal footing but regarded through white eyes.

The film consists of a series of instances in which the white man saves the black man. True enough, Shirley does become much more relatable as the film continues, but always inspired by and at the instigation of his white sidekick. Ali must be commended though. His reduced and subtle performance hints at a depth of pain which only really comes out in one scene when he asks: „If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough (…) what am I?“. A moment of existential truth that the screenplay mostly denies Al’s Shirley. So it is in the dignity of Ali’s face, the slight freezing of his features, the looks of suppressed anger when being denied access to a bathroom or a restaurant, that the real story is told, one the white point of view has moved to the background. Even when, near the end, Shirley finally rebels and refuses to play by the rules, he only does so after leaving the decision to Tony and being encouraged by him.

Which brings this review to the film’s main issue: the story of personal change. true, the film’s Tony sheds his racism and is transformed into a better being by his association with Shirley. But this is the film’s focus: Here, opposition to racism matters mostly when it affects a white man, the person of colour is more a means to an end than the subject of his own emancipation. And the white man is only capable of changing because the black man does, opens up, becomes, well, „more black“ in terms of racial stereotypes.

And yet, of course, the film is entertaining, well-written, often funny, has an excellent sense of time, a good mixture of seriousness and humor. It is a well-made film, captivating, entertaining, narratively and structurally sound. And two brilliant actors who give their roles as much flesh as possible and, in Ali’s case, even a little more. It is a feel-good move, one that leaves most viewers happier than they came in, believing in the possibility of people who’ve been told they are different, to find common ground. Which is a good thing. But all this comes at a price: the price of fully embracing the white point of view, of feeding into old narratives, of replacing emancipation by entertainment, honest debate by a feel-good message, going where it hurts to peddling clichés of harmony. When Green Book  got its Golden Globe, there were nothing than white men accepting the award. The fact that this seemed to bother no-one, maybe the most damning thing around the film.

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