“Green Book” Receives Critical Ire For Being A Regressive “Driving Miss Daisy”

Green Book is being billed as the feel-good race relations movie of the year. Apparently, a lot of critics think it is worthy of that billing, since it currently has an 83 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But, even though there are a lot of critics who love the film, there’s also just as many who hate it.

The road trip film starring Mahershala Ali as musical prodigy Dr. Donald Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as bouncer and Dr. Shirley’s driver Frank Anthony Vallelonga (otherwise known as Tony Lip, and also otherwise known as the actor who debuted in The Godfather and went onto star in Donnie Brasco and The Sopranos) is being derided as a film rife with unsophisticated looks at racism, being more kumbaya than realistic. Probably the worst part of the film is that it doesn’t elaborate on the real history of The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was created to keep black motorists safe throughout the country.

Richard Brody New Yorker panned the film, calling it a “regressive” version of Driving Miss Daisy. 

“The new movie Green Book sets up, with a pristine precision, a scenario that was already ridiculous when it was presented in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, more than half a century ago: the acceptance by white people of a black protagonist whose talents and achievements are exceptional, whose manners are elegant, whose record is spotless, and whose résumé and connections are stamped ‘high class.'”

He also took issue with how Dr. Shirley’s sexuality was used–or rather, misused–in the film as a way to avoid any investigation of the pervasive myth of the sexually-dangerous black man.

“Don fits another stereotype as well, one that works all too conveniently within the movie’s narrow contours: he’s gay,” he wrote. “This fact renders him essentially neutered in the presence of Tony and his family and friends, as if removing from the story any racist questions of menacing black male sexuality of the sort that are planted early in the tale and then never explored or challenged.”

Brody also wrote that the movie “isn’t the honoring of cultures, identities, and differences but their effacement in the interest of an ostensibly color-blind neutrality, a bland common ground of an accepted mainstream[.]”

“This grotesquely ahistorical and impersonal view honors a mode of racial enlightenment–a ‘both sides’ enlightenment–that’s as regressive as it is universally salable,” he wrote.

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip and Mahershala as Dr. Shirley, sitting at a picnic table eating fast food. Dr. Shirley looks off into the distance as Tony Lip smokes a cigarette.
Universal Pictures

Slate’s Inkoo Kang also hated the film, also calling the film a Driving Miss Daisy for the modern era.

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“…Green Book is perfectly adequate for what it is: middlebrow Oscar bait that plays it as safe as can be,” she wrote, saving much of her ire for Mortensen’s character and the film’s handling of Ali’s character. “Mortensen hams it up in a role written so broadly that his character could be mistaken for mortadella that gained sentience,” she wrote, adding later in the review, “We get much too little about Donald’s feelings about performing at mansions, including former plantations, filled with white people who worship his talents yet treat him as beneath them…We’re also cheated out of learning about his relationships to other black peole, other than the obvious complaint that he’s thought of as ‘not black enough.'”

However, she does have kindness towards Ali’s characterization of Dr. Shirley, writing, “…Ali, done up with Igor Stravinsky’s stern glasses and spindly mustache, is majestic, with a genteel starchiness that soon reveals tragic layers,” she wrote.

Overall, she wrote that the film seems designed only to assuage fragile white feelings. “…[T]here is something unseemly about singling out this story, about the seemingly narrow scope of racism and how easily it can be undone,” she wrote. “Green Book decries those cultural pockets designed to make people feel good, often at people of color’s expense. But that’s about all it does, too.”

Shadow and Act’s Brooke Obie also lambasted the film for centering white feelings in what should have been a story from a black man’s perspective.

“When will Hollywood stop centering white people in Black stories?” she begins her review, adding later that the “ahistorical film” doesn’t include Black characters using the actual Green Book, “let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives.”

“Instead, the film centers the story of a racist white man who makes an unlikely Black friend on a journey through the American south and becomes slightly less racist.”

Also decrying the film’s Driving Miss Daisy aesthetic, Obie wrote that the Green Book’s only function in the film is to be “a prop to enhance white understanding of white racism and white privilege in this country.”

Ali, she said, deserved better, writing that she learned more about Dr. Shirley from her own research on Google than through anything the film portrayed.

“Imagine having a queer Black protagonist in the ’60s, a literal prodigy, living lavishly above the actual performance hall of the most iconic prodigies, who has his own throne room, and choosing to tell the story of his life from the racist white guy’s perspective,” she wrote. “Oh, what Ali could’ve done with a Dr. Shirley movie!”

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Dr. Shirley (Ali) and Tony Lip (Mortensen) standing against Lip's car on the side of the road.
Universal Pictures

There’s more where these reviews came from, too. Here’s just a smattering of reviews from around the internet that are raining hate down on Green Book (including usual contrarian Armond White. If the film has even Armond White against it, it must be bad).

• “With its insistence on the pretense of loving our way into racial harmony, the movie exists almost exclusively to allow white moviegoers to nod sagely about ‘how far we’ve come.'”–Cate Young, Jezebel

• “The movie clearly exhibits Hollywood’s unfortunate tendency to elide reality when making movies about historical racism. It takes the name of an important artifact of history, one whose very existence was a result of prejudice and entrenched white supremacy, and makes it the basis for a broad comedy.”–Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

• “Green Book is so heavy with seriousness that any humor about the essential qualities the men share–or that complement their unlikely friendship–is lost. This misjudgement fails to reverse the lachrymose gimmick of Driving Miss Daisy. It’s as if we’ve gone backwards since the American mainstream hid national tensions behind that film’s namby-pamby panacea…Everything in Green Book is obvious because it is dishonest.”–Armond White, National Review

• “No wonder Green Book, which is like an inverted Driving Miss Daisy by way of Rain Man‘s mismatched-buddy road trip, is already earning ovations: Intentionally or not, it flatters the delusion that racism, in its ugliest form, is more of a past-tense problem.”–A.A. Dowd, AV Club

• “There is virtually no milestone in this tale of interracial male friendship that you won’t see coming from a long way off, including scenes that seem too corny or misguided for any movie in its right mind to contemplate. ‘Siri, please tell me they’re not going there.’ Oh, but they are.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times

If you saw Green Book, what did you think of the film? Did you think it was a regressive film about racism for Trump’s America, or did you think it was actually more revolutionary than the critics think?