by: Meanne M. Mijares
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Director: Peter Farrelly
Studio: Universal Pictures
Rating: PG 13
Green Book is a period drama film set in the 1960s about a chauvinistic Italian American man (Viggo Mortensen) who takes a temporary job transporting a celebrated black pianist (Mahershala Ali) during his concert tour of the Midwest and Deep South. Called by some a “race-flipped Driving Miss Daisy,” the appealing story discovers how the two men had to put up with the so-called Green Book, a “traveling while black” guide to restaurants and accommodations that allowed black guests in the ’60s. Characters get beaten up and susceptible (including with a shotgun), there’s a fistfight, and two people are chained after being caught taking part in sexual activity (although nothing sensitive content was shown). There’s also quite a bit of language (including “s–t,” the “N” word, and more) and drinking/smoking. But the film’s messages about empathy and the danger of prejudice and stereotypes are important and challenging. And the story is an opportune reminder of how, just a few decades ago, there were whole parts of the country where isolation kept African Americans from fully contributing to civic life.
STORY IN DETAIL
Inspired by a true story, GREEN BOOK takes place in 1962 and shadows Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a white, Italian American New York City bouncer who takes a temporary job chauffeuring black concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he travels throughout the Midwest and the Deep South on a concert tour. The movie’s title refers to a (now historical) guide for what Tony calls “traveling while black”: The Green Book is a handbook or index of restaurants and accommodations that make provision to African Americans throughout the separated South. As the uncouth, working-class, and admittedly racist Tony and the incredibly well-educated, intelligent Dr. Shirley get to know each other on the road, they challenge typecasts and grow to form an implausible friendship. But the farther down into the South they travel, the more they’re forced to deal with everything from Jim Crow laws to hate crimes.
The film Positive messages related to race, class and discrimination. It encourages people to look beyond prejudices to see people as individuals, not stereotypes. Even if some stereotypes apply (Tony is Italian and loves pasta and pizza), they shouldn’t be assumed (Dr. Shirley has never eaten fried chicken in his whole life). It argues that individual connection and friendship can break down barriers, discrimination, racism. Empathy is a strong theme.
Dr. Shirley is a pure genius, a first-rate musician who takes the time to help Tony better himself in writing love letters to his wife while they are on tour. He’s also an example of a man that is doing his best to confront stereotypes about black men in Jim Crow South. Tony doesn’t let his racism get in the way of taking the job, and in connecting with Dr. Shirley. They both learn to look past prejudices and form an dubious but strong bond.
There was a fistfight after verbal confrontation in and in front of nightclub. A black man gets beaten up in a bar for no apparent reason. Tony threatens to pull out a gun to defend Dr. Shirley; the bartender then pulls out shotgun. Police officer stops Tony and Dr. Shirley’s car; after Tony punches cop, cop arrests both men, making indirect threats about “boy” being “his.” Men who engaged in sexual activity are caught, handcuffed.
A married couple hugs and kisses. Two people who were engaging in sexual activity are shown after the fact, naked but curled up so that no sensitive body parts are shown.
Frequent language includes two uses of “f–k,” plus “goddamn,” “s–t,” “a–hole,” “bulls–t,” “son of a bitch,” “Jesus Christ,” “bastard,” “pr–k,” “t-ts,” “hell,” “crap,” and “garbage.” “Christ” as an exclamation. Also many racial epithets: “eggplant,” “coon,” “boy,” the “N” word, “chink,” “spool,” “kraut,” “stooge,” and “brillo pad,” as well as “wop,” “guinea” and “hillbilly.” The word “colored” is used to describe black people.
Tony smokes cigarettes incessantly. A woman sells cigarettes at a club. Adults drink alcohol in bars at meals, parties, and by themselves. Dr. Shirley drinks from a bottle of whiskey (presumably nearly the entire bottle) every night. He gets drunk at a bar.
Mortensen and Ali gave excellent performances that’s partly “bestie” comedy, that is part history lesson, and social commentary on friendship and racial issues. Director Peter Farrelly, best known for rough comedies like There’s Something About Mary, brings out the humor in Tony and Dr. Shirley’s exchanges; he lets the lead actors to stand out in entirely opposing ways. Mortensen, who reportedly gained more than 30 pounds for the role, dips himself in impressive Bronx audacity, a swagger, while Ali is a portrait of nuanced limit, with loads of emotion smoldering underneath the surface. Both depictions are award-worthy, as are Ali’s musical performances (he went through extensive piano training to pull them off).
It’s not easy to revisit a time in history when gifted black artists could entertain all-white crowds but not sit or dine among them — or even use the same bathroom. Dr. Shirley refuses to lower himself through rudeness or even by listening to popular music, and he completely understands that the moment he steps off stage, he’s “just another black man to the white audiences” who moments earlier celebrated his talent. While Tony isn’t in the role of the feared “white savior,” Green Book’s story is more about him than Dr. Shirley, who’s substantially more self-aware — and also more of a mystery. It was amiss that Dr. Shirley’s personal life that does not delve into by way of more than a couple of allusions to his alienated brother and a failed marriage and one emotional monologue about not fitting into either white or black society. Especially considering that viewers meet nearly all of Tony’s big fat Italian family, including his more unprejudiced broad-minded wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), to whom he writes (with help from Dr. Shirley, of course) progressively poetic love letters from the road. To be honest, the whole movie is a love letter of sorts — to a friendship that’s a reminder that the world needs more empathy and human connection … with superb music no less!
Green Book won three Golden Globe awards, including best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, best screenplay, and best motion picture—musical or comedy.
Overall, I rate the film 4 out of 5 stars.