Race has become an important part of the film landscape. While representation remains wanting and films still struggle in their depictions of the subject, it’s still become essential to the discussion of them and we’ve seen an increase in well received films which have tried to take on the subject from a more challenging point of view. But if films like Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, and The Hate U Give were too challenging for you, there’s no need to fret, there’s still traditional films about race being made. The kind that exist for white people to marvel and gasp at how bad racism was and pretend the everything is so much better now.
The biopics are now coming fast and furious with this one being a tale of pianist Don Shirley and bouncer and eventual actor Tony Vallelonga and their eight week trip through the Midwest and Deep South in 1962. Tony Vallelonga (or Tony Lip as he’s better known), is an overweight, violent, and extremely Italian-American man scrapping by for cash and working at the Copacabana. Viggo Mortensen plays him as practically unironically talking about “gabagool” and saying “fuhgeddaboudit”. I’d make a joke about him confronting someone about “breaking my balls” but he actually does this. He’s a picture of excess and walking comic relief who eats entire pizzas folded over in half and twenty something hot dogs in a sitting as he chain-smokes and commits petty crimes and hustles.
He also, as these films always must, starts out as a racist, self-serving asshole, the kind who throws away glasses because black people drank from them, casually calls an Asian man a c***k, and while I’m not sure if the two events are related, but I’m pretty sure he gets his club shut down for renovations through a stupid, risky move (I still have no clue how it didn’t blow up in his face). That time the Copa is shut down for renovations forces him to look for another job, a job which presents itself when he receives a call about a doctor looking for a driver. This doctor is no medical doctor however, it is acclaimed musician Don Shirley. What a kooky mix-up what and wacky shenanigans can you expect from a racist, uncouth white driver and his refined black passenger!
The comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy are obvious on the surface in the mixed race dynamic as the white person (here “comedically” relegated to the position of driver) has to learn to change and become more accepting while they are surrounded by other white people whose opinions on race are worse/do not change. It even maintains the comedy-drama, Oscar-baiting tone of that film. While that one was a largely inoffensive, if regressive and mediocre piece of fluff that had the misfortune of winning Best Picture (especially in a year which saw the release of Do the Right Thing) and losing the ability to just be forgotten. This leans even harder into the comedic aspect (hardly shocking considering co-writer/director Peter Farrelly history, even if it is a mostly terrible one) and the laugh at the white person. Perhaps more distressingly is, as confirmed by my audience, it seemed that plenty of his Vallelonga awful, racist behavior and talk was supposed to be laughed with. It wasn’t even good material but jokes about fried chicken and the like.
The depictions of racism are about what you’d expect from such a middlebrow film, but the film lacks any sense of real tension despite the very obvious danger they are in. Mahershala Ali plays Shirley as dignified and reserved and the film is content to leave him there in support. It takes the opposite approach to First Man which struggled when focusing on a professional, internal figure at the expense of everyone around him by focusing on a bunch of less interesting Characters and keeping him largely a reverential one whose difficulties have to be explained by others since the audience is too dumb to figure it out ourselves.
The film adds absolutely nothing that countless films (biopics, historical films, etc.) haven’t done in the past and often better. I don’t need every depiction of racial discord on screen to be a straight drama as Blindspotting proved this year and I appreciate the appeal of a simple crowd-pleaser, but there’s no place for these simple, too pat, feel good films for white people. The film threatens to come alive when Shirley is let to perform, and Ali gives him personality throughout, but it’s a movie that fails as a comedy, it fails as a drama, and it fails as a statement on race.