A Surprisingly Relevant Story in 'Green Book'
- Written by Diane Carson
In 1962, for the eight weeks leading up to Christmas, one street-smart, Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx will drive a well-educated, African-American musician through the Jim Crow South on a music tour. Writer-director Peter Farrelly’s film, ‘Green Book,’ establishes the characters of Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley respectively and then explores their rich, revealing interaction.
The title of the film comes from New York mailman Victor Hugo Green’s, ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book,’ published yearly from 1936 to 1966. The publication identified gas stations, garages, motels, diners and restaurants that welcomed African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. As Dr. Shirley’s tour takes him and Tony into the Deep South, the explicit racism they encounter makes the need for such a book crystal clear.
Based on a true story, cliches abound -- from the entire road trip structure, to a white man and a black man learning from each other, overcoming their differences and finding ways to appreciate the other as they spend time together. Some critics have decried the calculated, amusing fried chicken scenes.
And yet, Dr. Shirley is by far the more complex character, one who personifies and unequivocally advocates for dignity in the face of racist treatment, who teaches Tony to stop resorting to violence as his impulsive reaction to trouble, and who has friends in high places on whom he calls only when absolutely necessary. Dr. Don Shirley has a profound awareness of his own choices and position in 1960s America, and it is Dr. Shirley who purposefully books his tour of great jazz music through the South.
As Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, Viggo Mortensen, paunchy and unrefined, impressively presents through verbal and nonverbal minutiae, Italian-American culture and working class attitudes. As Dr. Don Shirley, Mahershala Ali embodies the inflexible gravity of his self-image. But Ali also communicates an irresistible humanity in his presentation of a man who knows the rules and risks, especially since he is gay. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife, Dolores, is also a stand out. ‘Green Book’ may indeed feel a bit, but it is also surprisingly relevant 56 years later.