Based on the true friendship between Italian-American bouncer; Tony (Lip) Vallelonga and the renowned Black pianist Dr. Donald Shirley, Green Book is the most unsuspecting road trip movie. It shows the unimaginable forethought a person of colour had to put in, to simply safely drive across country. The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book written by Victor Huho in 1936. This was a manual that listed the establishments that would cater to black people during that time, including gas stations, motels and restaurants.
Tony Vallelonga (or Tony Lip as he is known amongst friends) worked at the Copacabana in 1962 with an unorthodox professionalism, but when it closed for renovations, he needed to bring home the money in the meantime. That’s where Dr. Shirley came into play. The classical musician was looking for a driver to escort him from venue to venue on his concert tour. After some deliberation, Tony winds up saying yes to the gig.
Little did he know it would be his enlightenment.
The psychology of the characters are so complicated and the script is very careful to not make these two men caricatures of their cultures. The involvement of the real Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga in the screenwriting process added to the authenticity. Using the real letters that Tony wrote his mother Delores during that time as well as old footage and voice recordings of Tony’s voice, Norwegian Viggo Mortenson was able to fully envelop the persona of Tony Lip. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Shirley with exquisite refinement. His mannerisms, demeanour, body language, intonation of speech works so well in juxtaposition with Tony Lip’s unpolished Italian-American swagger.
Director Peter Farrely’s filmography includes much lighter subjects, such as the comedies; There’s Something about Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself & Irene. Although the comedy in Green Book is sparse, it hits exactly when it needs to. Tony’s disposition for folly often meets Dr.Shirley’s logical rationale in moments where the audience can take a break, regroup and return to the subject matter.
In this I am pertaining to a predominantly white audience, whose fragility means confronting racial inequality issues quite a heavy task.
Dr. Shirley’s identity is so complex and is something he confronts throughout the film. He dissociates himself from the stereotypes assigned to African American people. A powerful moment of his reality is when Tony is driving Dr. Shirley from gig to gig in the deep south, all the while Tony is drilling Dr.Shirley on how he doesn’t know the likes of Little Richard and Chubby Checker to which he refers to as ‘music of your people’, when the tire bursts. Tony pulls over to change it, opposite a cotton farm. As Dr. Shirley gets out of the car to stretch his legs in his elegant attire, the slaves picking cotton slowly turn and stare in shock and amazement. The sight of a black man in a suit being driven by a white man who wasn’t a cop, would be as rare as seeing a pig fly.
The lack of narrative here works so well. The power of the event speaks for itself.
In another earlier car scene, Dr. Shirley discusses juggling the ‘husband act’ and the ‘travelling musician act’ like trying to manage both worlds. In actuality, Dr. Shirley was navigating many worlds, the white world;
- His place as a black man in a white world
- His place as a black entertainer in a white world
- His place as (potentially) gay, black man in a white world.
Tony Lip’s primitive views on race are presented as hereditary. Italy, like so many has roots in colonisation of African countries and the dictator Mussolini was buddy buddy with Nazi Germany and so this history built a stubborn foundation that strongly celebrates tradition. This affects progression in equality of race, sexuality and gender. Let’s take Delores, Tony Lip’s wife, played excellently by Linda Cardellini as an example. She is presented as the most tolerant of racial differences, offering the two black workmen a glass of water at the beginning of the film. When she later finds the two cups in the trash, clearly thrown in there by her husband, she doesn’t approach him about this topic. In today’s landscape, there are very few couple’s that exist who have such differing views on race. This is what embedded racism within a culture and community looks like. Of course, she beams with pride at the end of the film when Tony calls a family member out on their racial slur. So of course, now the man of the family has declared anti-racism, (the very notion that Delores has been about the whole time, albeit silently) the family is called to attention.
One notion I kept circling back to when watching this film was; if only that one wife called her husband out on his racism, if only that one waiter said, ’sod the racist laws, of course Dr. Shirley can eat here’, if only one guy in the racist redneck gang said, ‘hey guys, let’s not beat up black people anymore’. It may be supremely idealistic and naive to even suggest or ponder on, but really – if only…
This film presents the different guises the evil of racist discrimination has taken on throughout history. Using the road trip trope worked perfectly to show the geographic disparity in the U.S.A during that time and to this day. The film should not be mistaken as a documentary on the book itself; The Negro Motorist Green Book. I interpreted the title as the foundation for a story of two men; one for whom this book proved necessary for life and death and for one whose only interaction with the book was for a job. Through this subject focus, the film is able to showcase the contrasting everyday experiences for whites and blacks.
I mean, the audience is introduced to Dr. Shirley in his lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall, the man quite literally sits on a throne as he interviews Tony Lip for the job. Skip to ⅔ of the way through the film, Dr. Shirley sits in a run down motel ‘for coloured people only’ while Tony stays at the swanky whites only establishment. If that doesn’t spell if out for people, I’m not sure what will.
The film’s exploration of the reality of inherent racism shows how it can take shape and evolve into different guises. Tony’s subtle micro-aggressions and deep-seated ignorance is portrayed so subconsciously. The inner and outer battle Dr. Shirley faces is so much more profound and heartbreaking than the dilemma Tony Lip faced when deciding whether to take this job. The journey he goes on is chronologically mapped through the road trip, in a temporally balanced way. As an audience member, I felt sympathy for both characters for different reasons and the way in which their paths cross symbolically represents unity, respect and equality.