Sunday, March 10, 2019

Video column: "Green Book"

I didn’t think “Green Book” could win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I’m thrilled that it did. It’s very rare for my favorite movie to take the top prize at the Oscars. Furthermore, its chances seemed dimmed after a concerted (and I think largely unfair) backlash against it.

I’m even now hearing people offhandedly refer to the film as “racist.” A movie recounting an unlikely friendship between a famous black artist and a bigoted Italian-American tough in the early 1960s is racist? Apparently not being sufficiently “woke” is now grounds not just for dismissal, but castigation as representing the very evil institution the movie exists to assail.

The assault on logic aside, I care not. The loss is theirs.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen play Don Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, two men as different as they could be. Shirley is black, educated, imperially slim, proud and serenely confident. Tony is squat, rude, earthy, unpretentious and unsophisticated. Both are sure of themselves and equally dismissive of the other.

Shirley, a jazz pianist, is about to embark on a lengthy concert tour in the South and needs somebody to drive him and watch his back. Tony needs a paycheck while the nightclub where he works as a bouncer is closed for repairs.

They predictably clash and confront, needle and rebuke. But slowly, gradually, they start to form a bond.

First it’s over little things like contemporary pop music and friend chicken. There are moments, confrontations with rednecks and such, in which Tony is obliged to stand up for Shirley. Likewise, the musician finds himself inclined to show grace toward his backward employee, such as helping him write beautiful letters to his wife.

These are some of the finest performances of Ali and Mortensen’s careers. They fully inhabit their characters, showing us their grace as well as their faults. In the end, their friendship becomes a balm that soothes the ache in their souls.

Ignore the haters, and revel in this beautiful story about overcoming hatred.

Bonus features are not terribly expansive. There are three making-of documentary shorts: “Virtuoso Performances,” exploring Mortensen and Ali’s turns; “An Unforgettable Friendship” about the real-life friendship between Shirley and Vallelonga; and “Going Beyond the Green Book,” which looks as the film’s cultural impact.



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