Green Book

green_bookSTARS4.5Green Book is the compelling chronicle of black pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) 1962 music tour of the deep south.  He hires white bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard.  I admit I was skeptical. I had heard grumblings from a very small but vociferous group of detractors.  Right from the get-go, the interracial synopsis sounds like a calculated set up that promises a feel-good story about how people from contrasting cultures were able to come together and becomes friends.  In its most simplistic essence, that’s what you get. However, the sleek craft with which this road movie is assembled is a masterclass in creating an audience-pleasing feature.  It establishes characters you simply want to love. I enthusiastically embraced this picture.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Green Book is directed by none other than Peter Farrelly, one-half of the Farrelly brothers that brought the world such ribald comedy classics like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Those are well-crafted movies and this is clearly assembled by a competent artist as well. Green Book has comedic elements too, but this represents a definite shift for the filmmaker.  Green Book is a serious drama first.  A powerful work that has a respectful reverence for its subjects.  The title references a guidebook that gave recommendations to African-American travelers to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.  You see, under the era of Jim Crow laws of the Confederacy, racial segregation was actually enforced by legislation.  In short, black people weren’t allowed to stay or eat at certain establishments. The manual was published up until 1966.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Don Shirley was the son of parents who emigrated from Jamaica.  He was an accomplished classical musician. However after a manager told him that American audiences were not ready to accept a “colored” pianist in classical music, he reverted to the more popular jazz genre.  During the 1950s and 1960s, he performed in nightclubs where there were more opportunities.  Don Shirley was a musical prodigy since the age of 2.   An intellectual, he spoke eight languages fluently.   He held a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts.  Don decides to go on a risky concert tour of the Deep South.  We learn that he could be handsomely paid playing safer concert venues in the North.  That would have been a more comfortable living.  Yet he wanted to play for audiences that might benefit more from his talents.  He would need a driver though who could also provide some security.

Frank Anthony Vallelonga is nicknamed Tony Lip because of his ability to talk his way out of anything.  He’s the son of Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx.  He works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.   Early in the account, Tony is seen disposing of the drinking glasses that black repairmen had used while working at his home.  Tony stands in marked contrast to his employer.  Don lives in a luxurious apartment above Carnegie Hall.  When Tony arrives there to apply for the position of his driver, Don appears to be sitting on what looks like a throne wearing an elegant robe.  He is a dignified man that refuses to eat with his hands.  Don and Tony are markedly dissimilar personalities.  Don Shirley, in particular, doesn’t fit within an established archetype.  At one point, Don exasperatedly cries into the rain “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough and I’m not man enough, then what am I?”  Their respective lifestyles and customs influence who these individuals are.

The screenplay does a deft job at depicting the point of view of each fellow.  This is a true story after all.  Green Book is based on an original script co-written by Frank’s son Nick Vallelonga with actor Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly.  Tony Lip and Don Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013.  Before that happened, Nick told the pair he wanted to make a movie based on their experiences.  According to Nick, Dr. Shirley gave his blessing with one provision “not until after I’m gone.”  There are similarities to previous works.  A chauffeur driving a passenger of another ethnicity from their own has an obvious parallel to 1990 Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy. That’s about where the comparisons end.  The stakes are much higher in Green Book. No one in Driving Miss Daisy was in danger of being lynched.

What really sets Green Book apart is the utter sincerity in detailing the lives of two very contradictory people.  Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen imbue their characters with such depth that we embrace them as fully formed people.  The narrative does a deft job at giving each person equal focus.  Despite how the studio has promoted their performances for Academy Award consideration, this is a dual affair with two equally pivotal performances at the center.  These larger than life personalities couldn’t be more different from each other.  Little details are presented that help us understand where these individuals have been and how they’ve changed. Their friendship with each other develops organically in a way that makes sense.  Each man gained from knowing the other.  Yes, it’s easy to dismiss the saga as a manipulative narrative that features a “white savior” or a “black savior”.  Yet it’s so much more than that.  At heart, Green Book unfolds like an authentic portrait of two unlikely souls that became friends.  The film is emotionally satisfying with a lot of heart.

11-29-18

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