“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Two recent movies—Peter Farrelly’s Green Book and Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex—may be considered practical demonstrations of Dr. King’s famous quote. Both films have been criticized for being formulaic, and one has been accused of even worse. Yet both have strong virtues that will leave most audiences entertained, and even—dare I say it?—uplifted.
The backlash against Green Book began even before its recent big wins at the Golden Globes, and is expected to affect its showing at the Oscars (the nominations hadn’t yet been announced when this review was written). Even beyond critical complaints that the film is facile and lightweight, there have been revelations about anti-Muslim tweets by co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen), and of Farrelly’s erstwhile penchant for flashing. (The anti-Muslim tweets are especially embarrassing because Mahershala Ali, one of the film’s stars, is Muslim.)
The most damning detail is that Farrelly, Vallelonga, and co-writer Brian Currie made no attempt before or during filming to reach out to Maurice Shirley, brother of Don Shirley (played by Ali), or other surviving family members. The screenplay states that Don and Maurice Shirley were estranged—but, under the circumstances, can we trust that? In any case, Shirley’s family told several media outlets that Tony Vallelonga—like Anna with the King of Siam—exaggerated his friendship with Don Shirley, and was basically just an employee. The online publication The Ringer gave the final word to Carol Shirley Kimble, Don Shirley’s niece: “It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life.”
I read all of this after I saw Green Book, and I read it with sorrow, because I found the film entertaining and moving, especially because of Mortensen and Ali.
The title of Green Book of course refers to the guide African-American motorists consulted in the days before integration, listing hotels and restaurants in the South that would not automatically turn them away—or worse. The year is 1962: Tony Lip, a bouncer at the Copacabana, is between jobs while the club is being renovated. Trying to make ends meet for himself and his family, he gets an unexpected offer to serve as chauffeur for Shirley, a renowned jazz pianist planning a two-month concert tour of the Deep South.
Farrelly practically rubs our noses in the differences between Tony and Shirley. Tony is a dese-dem-and-dose guy from the Bronx, a wise guy trying desperately to keep from being dragooned into joining the official Wiseguys. Shirley is an elegant, self-contained intellectual, a polyglot with two doctorates, the first American to study at the Leningrad Conservatory. He lives in an apartment above Carnegie Hall decorated with souvenirs of his world travels.
Tony and Shirley are a bad fit in more ways than one. Seeing two black workmen leave his apartment, Tony takes the water glasses they drank from out of the sink and puts them in the garbage. His initial interview with Shirley, needless to say, does not go well, but circumstances soon have them on the road together, in Shirley’s aquamarine Cadillac.
That the screenplay of Green Book is formulaic is scarcely worth noting. (If you’ve already thought, “Driving Miss Daisy meets The Odd Couple,” you are not the first.) But, as with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in Daisy and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Odd Couple, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali elevate and transcend the material they’re given. Some of the situations are not believable; as a boy from rural Ohio, I simply can’t believe that anyone born and raised in the United States has to be introduced to fried chicken. But when Tony got Shirley out of myriad scrapes, or when Shirley showed Tony how to write beautiful letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), I believed it absolutely.
Mortensen and Ali make Tony and Shirley lovable, despite their myriad faults. Tony, a classic Noo Yawk motormouth, is great with his fists and even better with street smarts, but he is also a man who can change and grow—essential to our feeling anything more than disdain for him. As for Shirley, he is a genius—as Tony readily points out—and as such is uneasily aware of being a man apart.
Being black is only a small part of that, as the story gradually demonstrates. But Shirley is a man beset by fear and loneliness, and Ali tears our hearts out with that, especially during one scene by a rain-soaked Alabama highway.
We feel white-knuckle anxiety for Shirley and Tony, especially during one sequence in an Alabama jail in which the local sheriff and deputies are itching to fry both of them. This sequence is important in two ways: it shows us that Tony is just as unacceptable in that Klan-leaning region as Shirley, and it shows us that Shirley, under the right circumstances, is the one able to get them out of a jam.
Whatever the facts about Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga—and acknowledging that Farrelly was egregiously wrong not to contact Maurice Shirley—Green Book is still on its face a funny, moving story of an unlikely friendship, as well as an earnest plea for simple human decency. That plea is never more vital than now. Only a couple of months ago, an African-American man was thrown out of a hotel simply for using his cell phone in the lobby. Will the current times make an actual “Green Book” necessary again? We all have to fight to make sure they don’t.
Taking on other questions of fairness and justice from roughly the same period, On the Basis of Sex concerns the early career and cases of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Covering some of the same events as the documentary RBG, Mimi Leder’s film, with a screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, is properly awe-inspiring in detailing the incredible intellect, courage and grit of one of America’s greatest advocates for gender equality.
On the Basis of Sex begins with a potent visual image: Ginsburg’s first day of classes at Harvard Law School in 1956, the lone woman entering the Law School building in a daunting sea of men. It turns out there are a few more women in Ginsburg’s class, but essentially Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) regards them all as curiosities, and treats them as such. Nevertheless, Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) persists, making Law Review and staying at the head of her class. She does so even when her husband and fellow student Marty (Armie Hammer) becomes desperately ill with cancer. She attends his classes as well as her own, taking notes for his benefit, and taking care of their infant daughter Jane in the bargain.
Once graduated, Ginsburg cannot get a job with any law firm, despite her stellar academic performance. Eventually she gets a teaching job at Rutgers Law School, leading a seminar on sex discrimination in the law. She continues to look for cases to challenge gender discrimination; in 1970, such a case appears, in a most unexpected way. Marty, now a top tax attorney, tells her of the case of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), an unmarried man who had to hire a nurse to care for his incapacitated mother so he could continue to work. When he claimed a tax deduction for the cost of the nurse, his claim was denied—on the grounds that he was a man.
The Moritz case takes up the last half of On the Basis of Sex. It wasn’t a major case per se, but it served as the foundation for landmark cases Ginsburg later argued before the Supreme Court. Also—as Stiepleman told Smithsonian Magazine—the Moritz case combined the political and the personal: Ruth and Martin Ginsburg argued the case together.
On the Basis of Sex is every bit as rousing as you might hope, yet its reviews were—at least for me—surprisingly mixed. Many reviewers dismissed it as “conventional” and “Classics Illustrated filmmaking” (exact words). It is true that it follows a storytelling formula made familiar by Rocky and a thousand other movies. But here’s the deal: that formula works. Audiences love to cheer an underdog, and Ginsburg certainly was one at the beginning of her legal career. We didn’t need this movie or RBG to tell us Ginsburg is one of the great heroes of American history, but it’s fun to see the proof.
The acting is excellent throughout, especially by Jones, who effectively conveys Ginsburg’s intellectual and moral courage, and Hammer, wonderfully supportive and good-natured as Marty. Altogether, On the Basis of Sex is a fitting tribute to a woman who has made America a significantly better place. The theater where I saw On the Basis of Sex was packed, and when, at the end, the real Ginsburg appears walking up the Supreme Court steps, the audience cheered. So did I, and so, I think, will you.