Movie Review: Green Book (2018)
“Green Book” could’ve used more of its title character, The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual pamphlet that helped guide African-Americans toward friendly accommodations and services while traveling around the U.S. in the Jim Crow era. In the movie, which is based on a true story, it winds up in the hands of Tony Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer and bullshitter from the Bronx. He’s been hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classical pianist who lives in an artist’s residence above Carnegie Hall, as he and his band, the Don Shirley trio, tour Midwest and Southern states, playing before white, ritzy crowds in the fall of 1961.
It’s an opposites-attract road movie. Tony is uneducated, earthy, powerful. He’s a nonstop talker with a big heart and a voluminous appetite. You know how certain movies like “Big Night” leave you hungry? I saw Tony shoveling so much food into his yap I never wanted to eat again. I left the theater feeling bloated.
Dr. Shirley is educated, distant, pinched. He’s distant not only from other people but his own people. In high-end white hotels, he drinks his bottle of Cutty Sark on the balcony while the rest of the trio chat up girls in the courtyard. In black-only hotels, he’s drinking Cutty Sark on the ground-level, but uncomfortably. He begs off a game of horseshoes; he doesn’t want to mix. It’s up to Tony to introduce him to popular black music of the day, like Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin. He introduces him to fried chicken.
Oh, Dr. Shirley is also gay. Oh, and Tony starts out the movie racist.
You know, for something this country can never shake, Tony’s racism sure seems to fade fast.
We first get wind of it after Tony pulls an all-nighter as a bouncer at the Copa—featuring Bobby Rydell singing “Black Magic” (nice touch). The next afternoon he wakes to find two black plumbers working in the kitchen, and friends and relatives grumbling about same in the cramped living room as they watch Roger Maris hit a homerun in Game 3 of the 1961 World Series. Does Tony make a scene? No. But after the plumbers leave, he takes the two glasses they drank from and deposits them in the garbage. That’s what he thinks of that.
Then he’s offered the above gig. During his interview, Dr. Shirley wears a dashiki and basically sits upon a throne—an elevated bejeweled chair. For the tour he wants Tony to press his pants and shine his shoes. Tony begs off those tasks, but Dr. Shirley remains authoritative. He tells Tony to stop smoking. He tells Tony both hands on the wheel. He tells him he shouldn’t shoot craps with the other (black) drivers outside the private concert hall, that he should have more dignity than that.
How does Tony, the nose-breaker who can’t abide black lips touching glasses in his home, deal with all of this? Shockingly well. His racism? Gone. Poof. He takes pride in Dr. Shirley’s talents (quite endearingly, actually), and never treats him as anything less than a boss, a man, and—ultimately—a friend. The gay thing in the YMCA with the white guy? Whatevs. Way of the world. Onto the next gig.
In fact, of the two, Dr. Shirley has the greater distance to travel. He has to loosen up. He has to eat fried chicken and play boogie woogie. He has to look black sharecroppers in the eyes and own up to who he is. He has to come off his high balcony and pitch horseshoes with the rest of us.
Think about that for a second. What does it say that in a road-trip movie through the Jim Crow South, the black guy has more to learn? It says, among other things, that the filmmakers are probably white. And they are: director Peter Farrelly, who also helped with the screenplay, and screenwriters Bryan Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga.
Wait, Vallelonga? Yeah, that’s Tony’s son. He’s a longtime B-movie producer, director, actor. In “Green Book,” he’s screenwriter, actor (playing a bit part) and character (played by Hudson Galloway). How often does that happen? But the fact that he's involved may help explain why Tony is so ahead of his time.
Gotta say: I enjoyed “Green Book.“ The chemistry between the two leads is wonderful and much of the superficial period detail feels accurate.
But throughout I kept thinking the filmmakers were making the characters extreme versions of themselves in order to give us our accommodating happy ending. I mean: a dashiki in 1961? A throne? I’ll take the artistic license of Tony schooling Dr. Shirley on Little Richard; but assuming everyone knew Aretha in 1961 doesn't make sense. That was the year of her first record, and she didn’t break big until 1966-67. Which is around the time dashikis became a thing.
As for that small-town Mississippi jail cell? It’s supposed to be horrifying. But after reading books such as Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” it feels like the nicest 1961 Mississippi jail cell these two particular northerners could’ve encountered.
Oh, and apparently Don Shirley’s family has complained about the inaccuracies.
In trying to break past racial stereotypes, ”Green Book" slides into one of Hollywood’s favorite tropes: educated people are snooty and working class people have hearts of gold. Elitist Hollywood just can’t tell this story often enough.