One of the advantages of cinema is that it can allow us to share in the experience of others in a vivid and compelling, yet entertaining manner. So it is with Green Book.
The film is essentially faithful to the true story of an unlikely relationship between two radically different men. The real-life Dr. Don Shirley was an extremely talented musician who might well have become famous as a classical pianist, but who was Afro-American. Feeling that he would never be accepted as a serious musician, he used his musical ability to arrive at a mix of classical music and jazz, thereby establishing for himself a high degree of popularity.
However, it was the 1960s and Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the Southern states. Determined to make a stand and show that black people are as talented and worthy of respect as white people, Shirley embarked on a tour of the southern United States, despite the advice of his recording company.
Knowing he was putting himself in jeopardy, Shirley decided to hire a bodyguard and settled on a night club bouncer, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Green Book tells the story of two months that the two men spent together on the tour, though in reality it was considerably longer. Although not strictly historical, Tony Vallelonga’s son was one of the scriptwriters for the film, thereby giving it a high degree of authenticity.
A reversal of Driving Miss Daisy, like that film Green Book makes one aware of the horrid realities that arise from racial prejudice, while telling the salutary story of the friendship that is eventually able to overcome those realities.
Of course, no two men could be more different than Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga. The former was polished, urbane, and dignified; the latter was a thug from the Bronx who shared in the prejudices of many in his community, largely based on ridiculous racial stereotypes. Although lacking all social charm, he was also a loving family man – essentially a diamond in the rough. As the two men embark on their journey, each finds in the other qualities that they can come to admire and appreciate.
As their story unfolds with considerable humour, it importantly shows the injustice of racism as Dr. Shirley is not able to go where his chauffeur can. In fact, the title of the film is that of a book which was published to give Afro-Americans a guide to places where they could eat and stay at a time when “Coloreds” were often barred from entering places reserved for “Whites.”
Dr. Shirley reacts to this with dignity, taking the stance that this is the most effective way to deal with prejudice. His chauffeur reacts with a mixture of disbelief and anger. It is one of the great merits of the film that many viewers will share Harry’s feelings as they become aware of the horrors of racism. At the same time it also makes one aware of the fact that by simply taking time to get to know someone, respect and care for others can be learned, no matter with what prejudices we approach them.
The film is ultimately a crowd pleaser, but one which is both instructive and concerning. Its success largely depends on the performances of the lead actors. Viggo Mortensen abandons his fantasy roles for one considerably rougher, but nonetheless charming and honest. Mahershala Ali, in his first starring role since Moonshine, provides the perfect foil. Few people will be unable to surrender to the pleasures of their performances.
Althogugh the film has a PG rating, there is one scene many will find disturbing. At one point Dr. Shirley is arrested for engaging in a homosexual act, though this is merely hinted at and never explicitly dealt with. It may be a reflection of the musician’s reality, but it is not something that is historically certain and is really quite redundant to the rest of the film in that it is never referred to again. Indeed, one wonders why the filmmakers included it at all.
This apart, Green Book movingly and charmingly makes one aware of what it is like to deal with racism and clearly shows that the only way to end it is for people to become aware of the human realities of others. With knowledge comes understanding and love.