Green Book is a beautifully wrought period piece, based on a true story, in which two starkly contrasting Manhattan characters – one black, one white – develop an unlikely friendship during a road trip to America’s segregated Deep South. Terrific entertainment, delivered with a powerful and timely message.
Green Book takes its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an American travel guide listing accommodation and restaurants that accepted black folk in the segregated South of the US. Who knew there was such a thing? Well, you do now, along with a big sector of the movie-going public. Green Book has done well at the box office in the US, and scored Golden Globes for Best Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actor, with both leads now shaping as Oscar frontrunners. And I have to say from the outset, the acclaim is well-deserved.
Set in 1962 and based on a true story, the film brings together two starkly contrasting characters when newly unemployed Manhattan nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (a bulked-up Vigo Mortensen, who apparently piled on 20kg for the role) is hired to chauffeur virtuoso pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on an 8 week concert tour of the Deep South.
Tony and Dr Shirley are both insular in their ways, and that’s about all they have in common.
Tony is Italian-American, Bronx born and raised. He’s big on family, friends and food. He’s working-class and cool with that. His nickname derives from his ability to “bullshit” (ie: manipulate others through smooth talking). On occasions, he is prepared to dish out rough justice with his fists. He has a strong and uncomplicated moral code, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with the law in some areas. Like others in his community, he refers to blacks as “eggplants” – racist, to be sure, but less a reflection of malice than of ignorance and the norms of the era.
Estranged from his siblings and disconnected from black culture, Dr Shirley moves in elite white liberal circles. He lives alone in a swish, ostentatiously furnished apartment. He’s as refined and uptight as Tony is gauche and loose. He interviews the applicants for the driving job from an elevated, ornate, throne-like seat. We come to understand this as a compensatory measure, rather than some weird eccentricity (nothing is random here; screenplays don’t get any tighter).
Cooped up in the car for hours as they travel between concert venues, Dr Shirley firmly ensconced in the back seat, the surface layers of class, race and culture begin to peel back, with often hilarious results.
In a scene that has drawn some flak (see here), Tony introduces an initially reluctant Dr Shirley to fried chicken when he shares a bucket of KFC in the car. After overcoming his distaste at eating from his fingers, the doc ends up licking them (well, metaphorically if not literally).
Dr Shirley, in turn, attempts to correct Tony’s pronunciation (he doesn’t get far), and assists him in writing to his wife, dictating flowery declarations of love and longing in absentia – a considerable improvement on Tony’s prosaic efforts, which consist mostly of describing his breakfast.
Of course, there are some nasty encounters with blatantly racist cops and other varieties of Deep South rednecks. Tony reverts to his bouncer role when Dr Shirley is baled up in a whites-only bar by a group of jeering local hicks baying for black blood.
Most telling (and outraging), however, is the contrast between the concert stages, where Dr Shirley and his trio are warmly applauded by the white audiences, and the shitty quarters he must settle for overnight, while Tony and the white musos stay in comfortable “white only” hotels. This and other constant affirmations of race-based inequality takes its toll, but draws Tony and Dr Shirley closer, as they transcend their differences through mutual recognition of their humanity, opening the possibility of friendship. Things get sentimental at times, especially the happy ending, but I was well won over by then.
I love this sort of “old-fashioned” filmmaking where the narrative is expertly structured, the characters are well-conceived and performed, and you believe in them and their relationship. That’s really the key to this movie. If you buy the characters – and I did 100% – you’ll be in for a funny, emotional and hugely entertaining ride. But Green Book is more than merely entertaining. It’s a timely reminder of where we’ve come from and how far we still have to go.
Oh, and THE MUSIC RIPS! It takes you back to what it must have been like in the early 60s when that pure Little Richard style rocknroll was breaking big. Did it ever get wilder or more liberating than that? I don’t think so.
For me, the film peaks in a scene in a black bar where Dr Shirley does an impromptu performance of his classically-influenced jazz, then switches to rocknroll when the house musos join him. Clichéd yes, but still it’s exhilarating and moving to see Dr Shirley finally embracing black culture while a clearly affected (and bopping) Tony watches on.
Stay for the credit roll. There’s some textual info on the real Tony and Dr Shirley guaranteed to leave you warm and smiling (and blinking hard).
To humanity and friendship, to unity over division, and to irresistible films like Green Book that light the way forward by looking back.
Movie Website: https://www.universalpictures.com/movies/green-book
Australian release date: Green Book in Australian cinemas from 24 Jan 2019
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