There’s a certain kind of movie about race relations in America that keeps being made, and that’s for a reason. It’s the movie about a casually racist, but ultimately goodhearted white person who falls for the equally goodhearted black person, and through each other’s differences, they come to understand each other, respect each other, even love each other. We’ve seen it in the 1960’s classics starring Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we saw it in 1989’s Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy, and we see it here again in Green Book, a film so old-fashioned in its sensibilities and its values, that not only is it set in 1962, but it could have very easily come out in that same year. All this isn’t to say that this kind of movie doesn’t have its pleasures, not least of which is the acting of the two leads, Viggo Mortensen as the casually racist Italian New Yorker hired to be the driver to Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, a closeted gay, black musician going on a tour of the Deep South. The two men are superb in this movie, bringing life into their characters and burgeoning friendship, so much so that they make you want to buy into it, even when you know you’re being manipulated by the familiar storytelling screws of this kind of road trip buddy movie. But I think the biggest issue with these kinds of stories are the perspectives from which they’re told. Despite the fact that Don Shirley is the eccentric genius and troubled soul of this narrative, for some reason this is the point of view of his driver, Tony Vallelonga, and how he learned to appreciate and respect the man he worked for. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I think it should, because the thing is, we already know Tony’s point of view. We know it because we’ve seen and heard it all before. It was Rod Steiger’s and Spencer Tracy’s point of view in the 1960’s, it was Jessica Tandy’s point of view in the 1980’s, and now it’s Viggo Mortenson’s, but if there’s another thing this movie shows us, it’s that that point of view, that of the defensive, goodhearted white person who learns to love a “good” black person, it’s that it has not changed one bit in the last 50 years. The things that come out of Vallelonga’s mouth when he gets into an argument about race with Don Shirley are the words you hear from Trump supporters today on the same topic. We’ve heard it all before and the only insight to be gained from stories (even true ones) like these, especially about racism, are from the perspectives of the characters who experienced and lived it. Ali is fantastic as the elusive and somewhat tragic Don Shirley and for what familiar, basic comfort it provides to a mainstream audience, the story of this friendship and this journey should have been his.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK * * * 1/2 (Dir. Barry Jenkins)