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Green Book (2018)

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Travelling while black.  Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who lives above Carnegie Hall in NYC and is about to embark on a concert tour starting in Pittsburgh and then taking a hard left to the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx who needs work while the Copacabana nightclub is closed for renovations. This is the best offer of a job otherwise he’ll be cornered into working for local hoodlums. Despite the stark differences in their origins and outlook, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting danger in an era of segregation, with Don helping Tony write letters home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and Tony displaying a unique approach to the threats and racism they encounter en route … The world’s full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.  Inspired by the real-life experience of Copacabana maître’d Tony Vallelonga and renowned pianist Don Shirley and based on personal letters from Tony to his wife and the Negro Motorist Green Book a guide book for midcentury black people needing safe places to stay, this is a bullet-proof comedy drama. It isn’t just a black and white film:  it takes a half hour for the odd couple to hit the road and Shirley plays with a trio, one of whom is Russian and whom Tony repeatedly mistakes for German – not his favourite nationality after serving in WW2. The opening section principally introduces Tony and his background as a bouncer with a BS radar that irritates people and gets him fired a lot. When we first meet him he’s beating bloody a hood with Mafia connections. The point is that this also examines perceptions of Italian America too, and not just racist attitudes – his are perfectly evident when he trashes two water glasses after black workmen have fixed the kitchen sink for his wife in their rented home.  It’s about how they live and talk and do business and look after each other when they’re out of work and the pressure to take and do favours for gangsters and it’s about what they eat – because this is also a film concerned with food: an array of the stuff that will have you gnawing your hand when you see platefuls of spaghetti and clams and meatballs and pizza. This has a nice corollary when Tony introduces Shirley to the joys of fried chicken. Perhaps there’s an issue for a black audience having this dignified, gifted multi-lingual virtuoso being educated in blackness through take out KFC and music stations on the car radio (he doesn’t recognise Aretha Franklin or any black popular singer – maybe) but it’s done with such warmth and with such a magnificent payoff in the final sequence after Don has taken enough from the Southern racists that only a condescending curmudgeon could get angry. So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?  What flips the dramatic situation is when Tony is asked about the origins of his name after they’re pulled over by the police in Alabama.  When he says he’s Italian he’s accused of being a nigger – a common epithet used against Italians – and he reacts by punching out a cop landing both men in the slammer. This is how he reacts to being accused of being black – with violence. It’s the lesson of the film because he urges Don to stand up for himself like he does, but in a nice touch (with the metaphor of their mutual imprisonment in their attitudes intact) it’s Shirley’s connection with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy that proves to be their Get Out of Jail Free card. Sometimes playing for rich white people in Park Avenue apartments and keeping schtum works.  Sometimes. When Don is caught with his pants down in the YMCA with another man, Tony pays off the cops and shrugs it off, because he’s seen it all before in his job at that showbiz mecca, the Copa:  things get complicated, he says and fuhgeddsaboutit. Indeed for a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and declaratively hits hot-button topics about representation of race, sex and class without becoming mired in anything other than common live-and-let-live humanity, it’s an unobjectionable, balanced, remarkable and rather generous piece of work, a prism into the Sixties that throws today’s experiences into relief. Being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.  The two leads are note-perfect in performances of great scope from a screenplay by director Peter Farrelly, Vallelonga’s son Nick and Brian Hayes Currie. Beautifully shot by Sean Porter, this is scored by Kris Bowers and has some wonderful interpretations of work by jazz greats. Has Mortensen ever been better in this heartwarming story that’s so well told? No wonder it’s awards catnip. Geography isn’t really important

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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