One of the best surprises is watching a movie you know almost nothing about (perhaps because you were craving theater popcorn), and it turning out to be absolutely brilliant. Green Book happened to be such a surprise for me.
On the surface (and the poster) it might look like just another buddy road trip movie, but Green Book goes much deeper than that. It is a true story about the unlikely friendship of Frank Vallelonga, an Italian-American nightclub bouncer known to most as Tony Lip, and renowned African-American pianist Don Shirley.
Co-written by Frank’s son Nick Vallelonga, Green Book is the story of how the two unlikely friends came together when Shirley hired Tony as his driver and bodyguard for a two-month 1962 tour in the deep South — after a hilarious interview conducted in Shirley’s apartment located conveniently above Carnegie Hall, where he also performs in the film. Director Peter Farrelly traverses the premise with a remarkable lightness of touch, addressing the tensions of the journey with a combination of poignancy and humor.
At its essence, Green Book is the story of two juxtaposed individuals thrown together in close quarters and changing each other for the better. Shirley, a suave cultured genius (played by the equally suave Mahershala Ali), attempts to sophisticate Tony, a crude hustler, while Tony attempts to loosen the tightly wound “Doc.”
A particularly funny moment occurs as Tony convinces Shirley to try fried chicken (from a KFC in Kentucky, ironically) for the first time. After Shirley finally gets himself to eat the wing with his hands, he asks Tony where to throw the bone, and Tony shows him how to fling it out of the window. The two share one of their first bonding moments as they delightfully throw out the bones. But in the heat of the moment, Tony flings out the cup of soda from which he was drinking, and Shirley’s face changes immediately. Cut to the car reversing while Shirley forces Tony to pick up after himself — again highlighting the differences between the two main characters.
A similar scene occurs when Tony steals a jade stone from a highway store because it had fallen on the ground and was thus “just another stone.” Shirley reprimands Tony for stealing, and Tony pretends to angrily put the stone back in place.
Toward the end of movie, Shirley reveals that he always knew of the act and steals the stone from Tony as a souvenir of their journey — showing the progress of their relationship after two months together.
While friendship stands at the center of the story, themes of racism also play a part as the duo travels through a land rife with racial discrimination and tension. The movie itself is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide which listed the establishments in every city where African Americans were welcome. The book was compiled by Victor Hugo Green, a postal employee who traveled around the country for his work. The characters use the guide in their travels to find motels where Shirley can stay during the course of the tour.
The juxtaposition of those places where Shirley is allowed to stay to those where only Tony is welcome becomes starker the deeper south they travel, mirroring the racial conditions of each city.
In a callback to the fried chicken bit at the start of the film, one of Shirley’s private concert hosts makes his staff cook a special feast in Shirley’s honor, one more suitable to his palette: fried chicken and collard greens. This moment is telling of the stereotypes held by white Americans and the mold in which Shirley was often forcefully cast.
In another scene, a host asks Shirley to use a wooden shack toilet in the yard instead of the bathroom in the host’s house. When Shirley refuses, the host says that he would rather wait half an hour for Shirley’s performance to resume and use the bathroom in his motel room than let him use his own.
Such moments of discrimination are plentiful throughout the movie, and Shirley’s calmness is almost surprising. He doesn’t even lose his composure when he and Tony are arrested by a policeman for being out on the road after the “curfew” for black people (and then continues to his one phone call to call Bobby Kennedy).
The most poignant and emotionally charged moment of the movie is a silent sequence in which the duo’s car breaks down and Shirley steps out as Tony begins to repair it. In the few minutes he spends standing out, Shirley faces a cotton field with several African American laborers toiling in the sun.
As he silently stares, dressed in an immaculate suit with a white man working for him, Shirley grabs the attention of the people he is spectating — who in turn stare back in disbelief. This surreal scene, in the interval of just a couple of minutes, nakedly portrays the identity crisis from which Shirley suffers, being at once a rich, revered artist and a black man in the middle of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.
Not only does the film artfully reflect the racial tensions of its time, it also delicately broaches the subject of Shirley’s homosexuality — and the accompanying shame and secrecy — in an era when it too was not accepted.
The movie’s beautiful screenplay and direction is greatly aided by the immaculate aesthetic quality of the movie. The color palette is beautiful in a most uncontrived manner. Mahershala Ali’s wardrobe of stylish and bold suits is an unexpected bonus. Most of all, the actors do a phenomenal job in what could be the best performances of their careers.
Viggo Mortensen (completely unrecognizable if you know him as Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings franchise) organically fits into his role as a mostly uncouth man with very little self-control, and Ali too inhabits his character completely. While only present in a few scenes, Linda Cardellini owns the camera as Tony’s wife Dolores each time she appears on screen.
Green Book is utterly deserving of its Oscar nominations this year — even receiving a nomination for the coveted Best Picture award as well as acting nods — and though it may not be a mainstream hit, it is undoubtedly an important film and a delight to any viewer who sees it.