A film Directed by Peter Farrelly
For those who don’t know, were not exposed to that part of the cultural divide, or simply are too young to know, the Green Book was a handbook for African American travelers seeking safe haven when trekking through the segregated Jim Crow South. The Green Book was an indispensable travel guide published (by Victor Green, a postal worker who worked in New Jersey but lived in Harlem) between 1936 and 1966 that listed hotels, bars, restaurants and gas stations where black travelers would be welcome. It also offered tips to these travelers for avoiding trouble in the southern United States. The book’s actual title could vary. It was occasionally called The Negro Motorist Green Book; The Negro Travelers' Green Book; The Travelers' Green Book or some similar variation.
Green Book is the title of this roadtrip movie that plays out almost like a reverse Driving Miss Daisy. In this case, a white New York City bouncer, Frank Anthony Vallelonga, A.K.A. Tony Lip, (played by Viggo Mortensen) is enlisted to chauffer a black concert pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) through the less-than-friendly southern landscape of 1962 America. At the time Tony is hired, he is between jobs as the Copacabana where he works as a bouncer is closed for renovations. The job with Dr. Shirley is an eight-week concert tour—which will mean leaving wife, Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini) home with the kids. Tony is enlisted to drive Dr. Shirley, while Shirley’s two fellow musicians, bassist George (played by Mike Hatton) and Russian cellist Oleg (played by Dimeter Marinov), take their own car.
The movie explores the unlikely friendship and bond forged during this eight week sojourn by these completely opposite individuals. Tony is the tough guy with a heart of gold. Dr. Shirley (as he is referred to during the movie) is the urbane, well-educated, multi-lingual musical genius. Of course, both characters have their flaws. The movie exposes these in detail, yet it also provides an insight into the true-story about the friendship that these men cultivated. It wasn’t easily done and the film shows how the men grew to accept each other and eventually forge their unlikely friendship.
Ali’s Dr. Shirley is regal and cultured and quite uptight. He is a world class jazz musician who has played at Carnegie Hall, appeared on television on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends and with the Boston Pops. Shirley, by 1962, the time that the movie centers on had also appeared around the world and played for many heads of state.
Mortensen’s Tony calls Shirley “Doc” and is a typical early ‘60’s Italian stereotype from the Bronx. He’s a bit ill-mannered and a complete schmoozer, but as one would expect has a heart of gold. Tony is shown throughout the movie either eating of working his magic through his gift of gab. He manages to get whoever he speaks with to give in to his ideas and provide him with what he wants (as a result, his nickname, “Tony Lip,” appears to be well-earned).
Both Ali and Mortensen deliver multi-layered performances. Both characters come across as human beings with thoughts, feelings, need and wants. As the movie unfolds, the bond between the men and the social divide that separated them is seen melting away. The movie, while about a very serious topic, is hardly dry. Mortensen is both hysterically funny when he delivers a line and also when he shows his amusement via his facial reactions and even when he smiles.
Of course the movie does its job by balancing the two men’s blossoming friendship and respect for each other with the harsh realities of the south in the early ‘60s and its treatment of people of color. The bigotry and inhuman treatment of others during that time is not sugar-coated. The film, however, provides a thought-provoking reminder that not that long ago there were parts of the country where segregation was not just a concept, but a way of life.
The movie, which was directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the duo responsible for both Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary never panders. It deftly shows and navigates a very difficult subject matter without being heavy handed and without turning it into a parody. The movie succeeds because it shows the characters developing a respect, a bond and finally a friendship by being open to each other.
Lastly, the movie’s soundtrack is something to behold. The viewer is provided with wonderful concert pieces as well as the hits of the time, including Little Richard and Chubby Checker as well as some impromptu boogie woogie.
Green Book is rated PG-13 and contains mature themes, strong language, including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. Running Length is 130 minutes.