“Green Book” Is An Unlikely, But Special Film

"Green Book" is a brilliantly acted road trip dramedy.

Green Book
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rated: PG-13

You should see Green Book twice – once to experience the delights it offers and again to savor what you watched the first time around.

This is a superbly acted, intelligent film for thoughtful people, the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn’t release too many of these days.

It’s not a superhero movie or remake or sequel, but it’s not quite an original either since it can be put in the category of period piece movies on race like Driving Miss Daisy or The Help.

But while on the surface Green Book is about race and racial turmoil, deep down, it’s really not. It’s really a simple, believable story about how two people from vastly different backgrounds become friends.

Because of the way the roles are acted, the actors’ timing and delivery of the lines in a humanistic script (for the most part), this relationship could have developed in any setting in any time period. The background is just a prop.

This particular setting happens to be 1962, when African-American jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) and his trio in New York are booked on a concert tour down South, down in the Deep South. Times being what they were racially back then, not only does the musician need a driver, he needs an equalizer of sorts to make sure things don’t go too far, well…south, on the tour.

Enter Tony Lip, an Italian-American career nightclub bouncer from the Bronx (played by Viggo Mortensen), who is basically a decent man trying to provide for his family, but doesn’t take crap from anybody and isn’t particularly fond of Black people.

In between jobs for a stretch while the nightclub where he works is temporarily shut down for repairs, Tony accepts the offer from Dr. Shirley’s record company to ride shotgun for the pianist on the two-month winter concert tour that ends on Christmas Eve.

An odd couple, indeed.
The joy of the movie is in watching how this odd couple connects, as the cultured, classic-music trained but socially strained musician, and the blue collar, racist, smooth-talking muscle with a seventh-grade education somehow end up meeting in the middle.

There is a character trait that Shirley has that is essential in moving the story along in directions that forces these two fellows into and out of situations that helps them get to know and understand each other.

For the record, the other two members of the trio are white and travel with each other in a separate car, not needing the protection a Black man would require traveling the South in the day.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are outstanding as the leads who play off of each other as they both joust and commiserate through their adventures, along the way helping one another become better people by offering their strengths to the other’s weaknesses.

The movie is based on a true story written by Tony Lip’s son about what became a lifelong friendship between his dad and Donald Shirley, who was a jazz pianist, composer and world renowned prodigy from Kingston, Jamaica. Now, that is an odd couple. Maybe symbiotically, the two men died within four months of each other – Tony in January and Don in April of 2013, friends to the end.

The son, Nick Vallelonga, says that everything that happens in the movie actually happened in real life and the only creative liberty he took was to condense the tour to two months, when the men were actually on the road for a year and a half.

Tony (left) and Dr. Shirley begin to get to know each other on the trip.

The Real Green Book
Green Book is directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, who along with his sibling Bobby, are the Farrelly brothers, American directors and screenwriters known for character-driven comedies with absurd plots, such as the ultra-funny and successful Something About Mary and Kingpin, as well as duds like Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, Me Myself and Irene, and Osmosis Jones.

This comedy drama is a small gem of a movie. For its entire two-hour-10-minute run, there is not a wasted scene or moment in which your focus will leave the story, though there is a schmaltzy, maybe unrealistic scenario that could only happen at Christmas time, which allows the film to be tied up in a warm and fuzzy holiday bow.

A pet peeve, though, is the very title of the movie. Implying that this movie is about the Green Book is like saying your neighbor is best friends with the King of Norway because they are both oxygen breathing human beings who live on the same planet.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guidebook published annually by a Black New York City mailman and eventual travel agent named Victor Hugo Green between 1936 and 1966 for Black folks who were just being able to buy automobiles and take road trips.

These Black drivers faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences when traveling while discrimination policies were legal under Jim Crow law, so as a practicality, Green compiled a list of places that were relatively friendly to Black people, so they could find a place to stay or eat or buy stuff without too much worry. Kinda like a guidebook for the Underground Railroad.

Green’s book, or the “Green Book”, originally covered just the New York area, but he expanded it to eventually include most of North America, especially the South.

Tony Lip, who also has to plan Dr. Shirley’s itinerary in the cities in which he is playing, is given a copy of the Green Book by the record company to help him simplify developing the logistics.

So here, the Green Book is just a premise to riff an entire movie off of, a movie that could actually have been titled anything. But is also becomes a catalyst in Tony’s ascent to enlightenment.

At first he finds it a challenge that the man he’s hired to protect can’t stay in the same hotel as him, so if something jumps off, which happened a few times on their trip, according to his son, Tony would have to travel the distance between their lodgings to put things back in order.

Tony says goodbye to his understanding wife, played by Linda Cardellini, as he sets off on his journey.
These Green Book arrangements move from being a challenge to an inconvenience to finally an insult as Tony and Dr. Shirley grow closer and yet can’t eat a meal together in the same hotel where the musician is headlining the entertainment right after dinner.

So the Green Book is a plot device in this film, but it’s not a movie about the Green Book. Imagine how great a movie could be made by someone like Key & Peele about the places from the Green Book where you could or could not stay and the people you’d meet along the way. That would be as fun as a new Uptown Saturday Night!

So, though it’s not that movie, what you do have here is a touching rendering of a beautiful friendship and the human capacity to change. And that makes it a great film worth seeing. Twice.

(From left): Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini, and Mahershala Ali attend a recent screening of their Oscar-worthy film “Green Book”.

David Smallwood

Editor of N'DIGO Magapaper
David Smallwood

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