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Worth a Trip to See

Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali
Universal Pictures
 130 Minutes
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali   
Green Book

When the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated in Congress, the sponsors of the Act were worried that the Supreme Court might find that Congress had exceeded its authority in passing the Act. For that reason, they stressed an essential but little-discussed fact of life, and travel, for blacks in the Deep South. The sad truth was that as a result of segregationist policies which led to many restaurants and hotels refusing to serve blacks, it was often very difficult and, at times, dangerous for blacks to travel considerable distances because they might not be able to find a place to buy gas, eat, spend the night, or even go to the bathroom. As a result, for 30 years, a man named Victor Hugo Green published The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide whose goal was to inform black travelers of places that would actually accommodate him. That unsavory bit of Americana is the backdrop for the new movie Green Book, in which the guidebook plays a small part.


Green Book is the true story of the unlikely friendship that arose between two men, Frank Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a nightclub bouncer and fringe mobster, and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a world-class pianist. Vallelonga served as Shirley’s driver and road manager on several concert tours in the early 1960s, often going through the Deep South. As a result of their experiences, the two men became lifelong friends, and Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, who was a child when the actual trips occurred, conducted extensive tape-recorded interviews with both his father and Shirley before their deaths. The younger Vallelonga then turned those experiences into the screenplay of Green Book, with the help of Peter Farrelly, who directed the movie.


The movie opens with Vallelonga being laid off from his job as a bouncer at the Copa nightclub and accepting the position with Shirley, who is about to embark on a two-month tour of locations in the Midwest and Deep South. Vallelonga refuses to iron shirts and perform similar menial chores but impresses Shirley with his ability to help the musician get through any difficulties they might encounter. To help Vallelonga, one of Shirley’s backup musicians gives the driver a copy of the actual Green Book as a reference guide. The remainder of Green Book is a classic road trip movie, more of a series of anecdotes about various events on the journey than an actual story. And, as anyone who has ever seen such a road trip movie about mismatched travel companions before (such as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) can tell you, the ending of the film is very predictable.


However, as anyone who has ever seen such a road trip movie can also tell you, it’s not the destination but what happens on the journey that matters. In Green Book, the journey is important because it shows how the two lead characters change, but it’s equally important for what it reveals regarding the realities of segregation in the South, and also regarding racial relations in the North as well. I grew up at the tail end of segregation and remember the “colored” balconies in the movie theaters of my childhood and the two sets of water fountains, but many people today have no such knowledge, and the events portrayed give an immediacy to them that reading about segregation does not.


The main point that Green Book makes rather forcefully, over and over again, is that Donald Shirley, one of the most gifted pianists of his era, was talented enough to play in front of all-white audiences at exclusive venues like country clubs and smaller music halls (partly because his music was a mix of classical, jazz, and popular, not soul or rock and roll) but not good enough to eat in the dining room or even, at one locale, to use an indoor bathroom. Shirley, of course, was well aware of the treatment he would receive, but for Vallelonga, the institutionalized nature and far-reaching extent of segregation was a revelation.


The most shocking event in the film (and one that actually occurred) took place when Vallelonga was stopped at night while driving through a “sundown” town—one where blacks were subject to arrest or worse if they remained in town after sundown. Vallelonga gets in an argument with the cop, which results in both Vallelonga and Shirley being arrested. The rather tense situation is defused in one of the most surprising moments in the movie.


As Green Book points out, the racism of that era was not limited to the deep South. Vallelonga and his friends casually use terms like “eggplant” to refer to blacks, and, in an early scene in the movie, when he discovers that his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) has given glasses of water to a couple of black workmen in their apartment, he throws the glasses away (only to have Delores fish them out of the garbage can). The transformation of Vallelonga from casual racism to tolerance doesn’t occur in one “ah ha” moment but gradually over the course of the film.


Green Book has already received considerable criticism for once again framing a film about race relations of that era from the viewpoint of a “heroic” white man. This criticism misses the point that the story and the fact that it actually happened. Nick Vallelonga, who became a screenwriter and director, spent over two decades researching the events that went into the movie, with extensive interviews with both his father and Shirley. He insists that these events took place, and, although some of Shirley’s relatives dispute some of the facts, Nick has considerable documentation, including the letters between his father and mother that form the basis of one of the more entertaining subplots in the movie.


While the 1960s produced some of the ugliest racial violence of our times, Green Book does not depict any of that for the simple reason that, fortunately, none of that happened to Shirley (although the film mentions an actual incident in which Nat King Cole was assaulted while performing on stage in Birmingham). Instead, portraying the small, daily hurts and indignities that organized segregation perpetuated makes a significant statement.


Reducing Green Book to an attempted documentary on the racial experience of the era essentially throws out the baby with the bathwater. This is an excellent movie with two Oscar-worthy performances by the lead actors. Viggo Mortensen immerses himself in the character and actually downplays the role a bit instead of going for the big laugh. He also has great chemistry with Mahershala Ali (a fundamental prerequisite for a great road buddy movie), who has the more difficult role. The film affords fewer insights into Shirley’s character, which is not surprising considering that Nick Vallelonga undoubtedly identified more closely with his father than with Shirley. Still, Shirley, despite his attempts to maintain a refined, tranquil façade, clearly had his personal demons, as evidenced by the bottle of Scotch he drank nightly.


Green Book, despite its racial context and the excellent performance by the lead actors, is actually a comedy and a fairly funny one at that. Director and co-writer Peter Farrelly (of Farrelly Brothers fame) knows comedy and stages some amusing scenes, including an extended gag about Vallelonga persuading Shirley to eat fried chicken for the first time. This movie doesn’t have the crude hilarity of Farrelly Brothers efforts like Dumb and Dumber, but it’s good-hearted and provides plenty of laughter.


Green Book never forgets or trivializes the important racial topics it describes, but it remains, first and foremost, a terrific road comedy, likely to become a classic example of the genre. Thanks to a savvy script and great performances by two excellent actors, along with some powerful subject matter that is given just the right treatment, this film is one of the best of the year, and one that is likely to bring home not green, but Oscar gold.

In this clip from one of the film's best scenes, Mahershala Ali helps Viggo Mortensen write a letter home to his wife.

Read other reviews of Green Book: 

Green Book (2018) on IMDb