It’s been a hot minute since we’ve had a cute racism movie like Green Book, which wowed audiences at this year’s Toronto Film Festival to the point where it won the People’s Choice Award (over A Star Is Born!). You probably know what I’m talking about when I say “cute racism movie.” It’s usually a period piece set in a time (the ’50s or ’60s) and a place (the South!) when black people or some other systematically oppressed minority are treated like shit by white people. And right in the middle of it, amid all this racial tension, a friendship, a bond or — dare I say it! — a romance blossoms between two people of different skin tones. This unexpected union proves that — oh, damn! — people aren’t that different after all. And it’s always done in the cutest manner.
In the ’90s, we were inundated with these films: Love Field; Corrina, Corrina; and the granddaddy of them all, Driving Miss Daisy, where Morgan Freeman drove a cranky Jessica Tandy right into people’s hearts — and also right up to the Oscars, where it bafflingly won Best Picture. Cute racism movies are few and far between these days (The Help, I’m looking in your direction!), with some films set in the present sometimes falling into the category: The Blind Side, where Sandra Bullock memorably taught a hulking, young black man how to play football, comes to mind.
I assume they aren’t made often because, for starters, racism isn’t cute. It’s ugly, brutal, pathetic and, sadly, still around. Most of these movies offered (predominantly white) audiences the comforting sense that racism is a thing of the past, no matter how much Spike Lee or other like-minded black folk tell you it certainly isn’t. And even though these movies are mostly populated with the crème de la crème of racist white folk, setting the context for how bad things used to be, there’s always that lone, decent white person at the front and center, a figurative white knight (or knightess) who doesn’t mind being seen with a Negro now and again.
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The white person who doesn’t have a problem with the coloreds in Green Book is Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), also known as Tony Lip, an Italian-American nightclub bouncer breaking up fights and busting heads in the Bronx circa 1962. His wise-guy connections get him an audition of sorts to be the driver for accomplished African-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Despite Lip’s crass, goombah demeanor, the refined Shirley hires him to drive through the Jim Crow South, as Shirley boldly gives performances for uppity Southern white folk who don’t mind Shirley entertaining them — just as long as he doesn’t use their bathrooms and banquet halls. (The film is based on a true story, and its title comes from the guidebook Lip carries, which lists the hotels and motels where black people were welcome back then.)
Of course, Shirley and Lip get to know each other on the road, striking up an Odd Couple relationship. Shirley is the erudite fussbudget, teaching his driver how to write romantic letters to his more sensitive wife (the always reliable Linda Cardellini) back home, while gluttonous slob Tony hips Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken (in Kentucky!) and chart-topping black soul singers.
Sure, it’s kind of entertaining to see the studly, studious Mortensen slap on a few pounds and go way out with the fuggeddaboutit talk as he tries to shoot the shit with Ali’s pedantic, closeted virtuoso. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him ham it up. But the leads mostly are saddled with literal, middle-of-the-road material, given to them by director/co-writer Peter Farrelly — taking a break from making somewhat funny gross-out comedies with his brother Bobby — and screenwriters Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (yes, Tony’s son). The filmmakers continually emphasize that even though these two men come from different backgrounds and live different lives, dammit, they’re both still people. And when it comes right down to it, WE’RE ALL THE SAME! (Yeah, we should all know that by now. Unfortunately, a lot of us need a refresher course.) Bottom line: If you think Green Book is not going to end with these two locked in a warm embrace, you’re crazy!
While the real Shirley and Lip have lived lives that would make them each merit their own biopic (look them up and you’ll see this movie could’ve told you a lot more about them), Farrelly and company take their road trip and make a middlebrow, kid-gloved entertainment committed to reminding everyone that racism is bad and that getting along with people who are different than you is way easier than you think. After all, it’s 2018 and the country couldn’t be more divided — racially divided, especially. And Green Book, with its adorably rose-colored way of showing us how bigoted, pointless and stupid things were back then, does sound a warning: If this country keeps on with the hate, the future will find even more cute racism movies like this popping up.