Orpheus in the Deep South

Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)

There’s a point in this film when driver/body guard Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) tells African American musician Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) that his wife (Linda Cardellini) has bought his version of Orpheus in the Underworld. That’s the one is which the champion lyre player descends into hell to rescue someone.

Depending on which version you read of the myth, it doesn’t end up well.

Perhaps Tony is the one who is rescued — certainly redeemed. Early on he and his sub-Scorsese Italian American family in Hell’s Kitchen are established as racist, Tony throwing away the glass tumblers drunk from by the black workmen who have been fixing stuff. But we all know it just takes meeting one person to cure a man of racism. The ironies of Don’s sophistication and literacy compared to Tony’s are piled on, as well as his ignorance of perceived Black culture. There is an extraordinary sequence, just after the halfway point, which Tony shrugs off because he’s worked in nightclubs in New York and is a Man of the World, which might be used to explain Don’s tastes, but is never alluded to again.

It answers some of the questions about why Don is cut off from his family and, given the psychology of the time, puts the masochism of his undertaking a musical tour in the Deep South. It’s made clear that people of his ethnicity are not welcome — they can just about play a venue but not eat in its restaurant. (And these aren’t even segregated venues, they are Whites only). But otherwise he seems to be another magical negro.

At the same time, in the interests of balance, Tony gets to be the White Saviour. Despite D’s hatred of violence, saying that becoming violent is losing the argument, Tony has been hired for his muscle. And it is needed. Somewhere along the line I pondered on the struggle of the period between peaceful resistance and by any means necessary. We want our civil rights activism to be well spoken.

The film is Tony’s narrative, he changes the most, although Don gets a limited amount of acceptance by the end. If he goes back south, though, he would still need the muscle. The script, after all, is based on interviews with the real life Tony — who it would appear exaggerated his friend with Don.

I confess I’d forgotten — or did not know — that the film’s director was Peter Farrelly better known for comedies in poorer taste. But towards the end, I began to get hints that this could have been a Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd vehicle and wanted to be a buddy movie with an edge. The main characters are allowed to get one up on each other.

But the film, perhaps because it is a true story, pulls its punches.

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