Racism has been a common theme in a lot of films up for contention for this year’s Oscars. One of those is Green Book. It has caught a lot of attention since it was released this year.
It’s 1962. Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga is the best bouncer in all of New York City. However the night club he works at is going through two months or renovations. He needs to find work to pay for his one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two sons. At first the only way he could make money was in an eating contest. He’s offered an interview to be a driver for Dr. Don Shirley on an eight-week tour of the Southern US. He goes to the interview, in Don’s apartment above Carnegie Hall, and is unhappy to see Don Shirley is black. Tony rejects at first, Don is insistent due to the strength of his references. Tony consults with his wife Dolores first. She agrees. Tony promises to white her and the boys. One thing he notices is that his accompanying musicians, Oleg and George, will be going in a different car.
They begin the tour in the Midwest before going to the south. The two start clashing at the beginning; Tony being asked to act with more refinement and Don disgusted with Tony’s habits. Tony is especially surprised how Don is so well-educated, not into rock ‘n roll and blues and fried chicken, which Don takes into offence. However it’s during the tour that he notices just how good of a classical piano player Don is. He also notices the racist treatment Don gets when he’s off-stage, including one time having a shabby piano with junk on it on one stage. Then one night, a group of white men threaten to kill Don in a bar. Tony rescues him and instructs Don not to go out with him during the rest of the tour.
During the journey, Tony stays at his own hotel while Don stays at the hotels in the Green Book, which is a hotel guide for African American travelers. At times, Tony can see Don drinking. Don admits to Tony that he is a divorced man and has isolated himself from his brother and his professional achievements. Don also help Tony to write his letters to the family. One night, Tony finds Don arrested at the YMCA for a gay encounter with a white man. Tony is able to bribe the officer for Don’s freedom, which Don sees it as ‘rewarding’ the officer. Another night at a sundown town, a white officer arrest Don and then arrest Tony after being punched by him. Don goes to call ‘his lawyer,’ but the officers get a phone call from Bobby Kennedy to have them both released.
The tour is winding down, but not with one last dispute between Tony and Don. Tony tells Don he thinks he’s ‘blacker’ than him. That causes Don to lose it and lament that his affluence gives him the feeling he’s an outsider to other African Americans while white people treat him like an outsider. His homosexuality only adds to him feeling alone in this world.
The final performance is in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the performance, Don is refused a seat for dinner and being the guest musician changes nothing. Tony attempts to fight the manager, but Don refuses to play. The two find themselves at a predominantly black blues club. When Don performs, the crowd loves him. The two return back to NYC. Tony invites Don up for dinner, but Don shies away. It isn’t until sometime later that Don musters the heart to visit Tony’s apartment. Here he’s made a welcome guest.
The film has been generating a lot of attention, both good and bad. The film’s script was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. This was mostly told through the point of view of Nick. However the family of Don Shirley was not happy with what they saw. Many claim that Don did not consider Tony his friend, but his associate. Peter Farrelly admitted his fault in not consulting with Don’s family before the film. Actually Peter didn’t know of how many members of Don’s family Don was still in contact with. In fact even that scene of Don arrested at the YMCA with another man raises a lot of eyebrows too since Nick admitted Don never ‘came out’ to them in his lifetime.
I can’t say much for a film that claims to be ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’ No such film is 100% true. There are always some plot twists and movie cliches added in. In fact one could simply call The Sound Of Music ‘a musical based on a true story.’ The accuracy may be in question, but the film does have a lot of relevance. We think we have racial tension now or a big racial divide now, it was bigger back then. This was a year before Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. This was a year or two before schools in the southern US were desegregated. That ‘Green Book’ for African American travelers was very needed in the South because they could be attacked by hostile whites. Discrimination was that bad back then. There were still public lynchings happening.
One thing the film does is that it gives us something to think about. We’re living in hostile times right now, especially on the subject of race. There are still a lot of misunderstandings between races. The film sent a message that maybe if we stopped, calmed down, and talked things out, we can learn we have more in common that we have differences. Another thing the film succeeds in is testing our expectations of what people of certain races are like. There were many scenes where Tony asked Don about rock ‘n roll musicians and fried chicken. Don was the complete opposite where he played classical piano, was very well-educated, and couldn’t stand the thought of fried chicken. A lot of traits most white people, and not only Tony, would be surprised to see in an African American. Also Tony and his life and lack of education may surprise a lot of African Americans of what whites are like. Like I say, if we took the time to talk, we’d be surprised.
The film may present Don Shirley to be a very wealthy, very successful African American, but the film does show that despite the wealth and high education, Don still feels like an outsider. That’s another theme of the film: personal insecurities. History can easily explain why Don would feel uncomfortable around white people. However his identity, wealth and background has made him feel like an outsider to other blacks also eats at him. That scene where the two stop in the south in a cotton field with a group of African Americans working on and they all stop to look at Don is a symbol of his insecurities. That’s a reminder to us of how there are some that feel they don’t fit into their own race. However that scene where Don plays rock ‘n roll at the jazz bar showed that he had a lot to overcome and that he actually does fit in. Also the scene at the end where Tony welcomes Don into the house at Christmas, though demanding his family not refer to black people by that certain slur, sends a message that a major way to overcome racism is simply befriending people of another race.
You can dispute the truthfulness of the story but you will have to acknowledge that the script and story are put together very well. Nick Vallelonga isn’t just Tony’s son. He’s had years of screenwriting experience. Teaming up with Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly on the script, they deliver a great story that’s worth knowing. Farrelly also does a very good job in directing this film. A complete change of pace from the charmingly crude comedies from the Farrelly Brothers. Viggo Mortensen was solid in character in his role as Tony, but Mahershala Ali was also excellent in his role. It will leave you questioning who was the lead actor in the film? The film also had some good supporting performances such as Linda Cardellini as Dolores and various other members of the Vallelonga family in their roles. The mix of previously recorded music and the original music of Kris Bowers helped make the film as well.
Green Book may leave you questioning the accuracy of the story, but it’s also an enlightening story nonetheless. It will leave you thinking as well, which is what we need at a time like this.
The last film I saw from the Vancouver Film Festival repeats was Felix. Felix is an entertaining movie of a South African boy with musical talents. How entertaining is it?
Felix Xaba is a 13 year-old Zulu boy gifted in music as he’s an expert at the pennywhistle. He lives in a Zulu area of Cape Town. His mother Lindiwe or ‘Lindy’ wants her children to have the success she never had so she is able to get Felix accepted into an exclusive all-boys prep school. This comes thanks to the help of Mr. Soames: a rich white man whom Lindy is his maid and is a former graduate of that school. Fitting in is not that easy especially since there is a lot of elitist attitudes amongst some of the richer boys of his classrom, especially Junior whom he ranks Felix as NOCD: ‘Not Our Class Dear.’ A punch from Junior during rugby practice leaves Felix with a bad first day. Further ostracism is felt days later when Felix is mocked for his green bag.
Felix does find his way. He does make friends with the big but shy Ricardo and the awkwardly friendly and goofy Samuel. They’re frequently at odds with the ‘elite’ clique of Junior, Marshall and Rocky. Felix wants to make the school’s jazz ensemble but can’t with the pennywhistle. Jazz music however is discouraged by his mother. She calls it the ‘Devil’s Music’ and believes if Felix pursues it, he will be like his late father, whom she refers to as ‘useless’ in front of her children but secretly still loves him. The children soon learn Lindy still loved their father when they come across the ‘evil chest.’ They learn it’s not evil at all. In fact it has memories of their father: various pictures, magazine articles of him and his band the Bossa Boys and even his own saxophone which Felix tries to play to make the jazz ensemble.
Felix tries to re-audition for the jazz band. During the wait, he finds help in learning to play the saxophone from Bra Joe, a former member of the Bossa Boys. All lessons have to be secret because he knows his mother will get angry at him for learning jazz and has a certain hatred to Bra Joe. Actually Lindy has a reputation of being the village snob. The one place where she is friendly is with her church choir. Through Bra Joe, Felix is able to learn to play the saxophone, learn sheet music and learn about his late father.
Everything turns upside down when Lindy learns Felix went into the chest and took the saxophone. She then pawns the saxophone. To get it back, the Bossa Boys hold a reunion concert that’s a benefit concert for Felix. The Bossas try to get the villagers to attend and Ricardo and Samuel try to get schoolmates and their families attend. The concert comes and theplace is packed with villagers and schoolfriends alike. , Felix and the Bossas put on a great show and the money is raised to get Felix’s saxophone back.
However it comes at the expense of Lindy as she disowns Felix. The final act comes after Felix succeeds in re-auditioning. He’s able to impress his strict instructors and he’s eligible to perform in the upcoming show where he has a solo part and a performance with the Bossas. Everybody involved with the school is coming, even Mr. Soames. But Lindy refuses. She still stubbornly disowns Felix. Only time is running out. This leads to an ending that is somewhat predictable but enjoyable nonetheless.
This is a very enjoyable family movie that succeeds in being entertaining without being overly ridiculous. There are some times when the movie does tread on some things like racism and the hard times of apartheid but it succeeds in not making it too heavy for the sake of it being a family movie. Actually the movie is shown mostly of blacks and whites conversing and getting along quite well in the movie. Even Mr. Soames treats Lindy like a friend instead of his maid. The movie does remember to portray the South Africa of today. Even scenes where there’s talk of the death of Felix’s father, including that scene where Felix asks Bra Joe why his father drank himself to death, came across as not too harsh as not to ruin the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie.
If there was one issue this family friendly movie focused on most, it was classism. It does show the separation between the rich and the working-class. It’s evident in Junior and his clique labeling outsiders as NOCD. It’s evident as one of the schoolmasters thinks that being labeled ‘elitist’ is a good thing. It’s also evident as one member of Junior’s clique, Marshall, is black coming from a wealthy political family and he treats Felix as an outsider. It also shows about the sometimes unfair world about privilege. It’s first evident not necessarily in the school but with Mr. Soames as he shows Lindy his tie from the school and says: “This opens doors.” Even Lindy’s attitude as she struts around her village thinking she’s too good for the village and she’s going to get her children out by sending them to prep school is another example of the theme of elitism. Nevertheless it’s Felix and his musical pursuits who shows that class is another border music can cross and actually unite the classes together in harmony.
Without a doubt this is a family movie that follows a familiar formula. It’s a child coming of age and doing what’s in his heart and desire despite the opposition of a parent. I’ve seen the formula before. The only way for a film like this to succeed is if it does the story right and if it makes you want the protagonist to win in the end. The movie does more than just simply make us want Felix to perform at the jazz recital despite Lindy’s opposition. The movie also wants to make the mother heal from the loss of her husband. We know that Lindy secretly still loves Felix’s father despite drinking himself to death. We also know the real reason why she considers jazz music evil: because she blames it for her husband’s death. The movie’s story succeeds in being a risk-taker in the plot. Felix’s pursuit of jazz, especially through playing his late father’s saxophone, could either help her heal from the pain or make it worse. That adds friction to both sides of the story. It’s something that not even Mr. Soames having tickets to Felix’s recital can soften Lindy’s heart.
For all intents and purposes, this is a feel-good movie that did all the right moves. There were many instances in the movie where the feel-good moments would normally come off wrong or ridiculous but it did things right. Some may feel the ending of it to be too fluffy or sugar-coated but we shouldn’t forget that this is intended to be a family movie. Besides name one classic family movie with a sad ending.
This is yet another example of countries trying to lean more towards creating movies and maturing past making simply films. And it’s not just simply making a movie loaded strictly with entertainment elements. They want to put effort into the story and deliver a professional winsome product. Felix is a good example of the South African film industry doing so. And it’s not just any type of movie but a family movie. Film industries around the world have always tried to make family entertainment. Very rarely does one stand out and catch the world’s attention. Felix appears poised to do just that.
Right now making live-action family movies is in a bit of a slump for Hollywood. It’s been a while since they’ve shelled one out that has fared well at the box office. Most family movies that have fared well in the last few years have been the animation movies. Felix doesn’t feel the pressures of Hollywood. The South African film industry is an industry that has little to lose and everything else to gain. A movie like Felix can gain a lot if distributed internationally. I see a lot of elements in the movie that can allow this film to excel internationally whether it be on the big screen or DVD. It just has a lot of charming ingredients that succeeds in entertaining.
The biggest accolades has to come from Hlayani Junior Mabasa for playing the musically gifted Felix Xaba. He was entertaining from start to finish and never let go of his scenes. Lina Sokhulu was also very believable as Lindy. She had to personify a woman with many different personalities: struggling, confused and hurting. She delivered a performance that was very well without interfering with the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie. Thafelo Mofokeng was also very good as the warm Bra Joe. Actually it was Bra Joe’s easygoing personality that seemed to make the hardest issues in the movie come across easier. The ensemble of both the young actors and the older actors and musicians also worked to make it enjoyable.
The thing that will surprise most people is that Felix is actually written and produced by women. It’s directed by Roberta Durrant who has an excellent resume in terms of film and television production in South Africa. In fact she has even received a Lifetime Achievement award for her contributions to film and television in South Africa. Shirley Johnson is a new writer with credentials in writing for television and stage and is an experienced actress. In both cases this is Johnson’s first time writing for a feature film as this is Durrant’s first time directing a feature film as well. Actually the script for Felix was an idea that started by Johnson back in 1995, finished the original draft in 2004 but only now came to full fruition. The end result is very professional, very impressive and very entertaining. The music ranging from the school band to the Bossa Boys to the church choir was also top notch and made the movie.
Felix is a fun entertaining family movie from South Africa. It’s a feel-good movie you don’t have to feel guilty liking. Reminds film festival crowds that audience satisfaction is not a weakness in film making.