‘Green Book’ Is a Feel Good Movie and a Reminder That America Still Has a Way to Go

Green Book” is an emotionally charged dramedy, a heartwarming account that goes perfectly with the holiday season. It recounts the true story of Jamaican classical/jazz pianist Don Shirley’s 1962 concert tour of the Deep South and his employment of a lower middle class Italian American bouncer as his driver. Though set in the past, it gives us some hope for the present day.

“Green Book” takes its title from a booklet published from 1936 to 1967 by Victor Hugo Green. Thanks to Jim Crow laws throughout America, specifically the South, African American travelers were forced to navigate through the institutionalized racism that made finding motels, restaurants or even gas stations that were open to serving people of color a challenge. Inspired by similar publications that catered to Jewish motorists, Green created his own guide that would eventually include every state in the union. They were a must for any African American motorist traveling throughout the United States.

The movie begins when a rough bouncer for the Copa, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), is put on leave while the nightclub does a little remodeling. Though temporarily unemployed, job offers are floated from the local mobsters. A man of his brutal talents could be of service to individuals in that kind of business, but Tony Lip is a family man with an adoring wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), kids and loud in-laws. He hopes for something a little more respectable.

He gets an interview to drive for some doctor. Assuming it’s a medical doctor, he finds himself at an apartment above Carnegie Hall. The title refers to a PHD and the would-be employer is Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a well-educated musician who is also black. Tony Lips has his problems with minorities. Earlier in the film, after he witnesses two black repairmen drinking water in his kitchen, he secretly tosses the glasses they used in the garbage instead of washing them.

The job entails two months of driving Dr. Shirley through the Deep South for a series of concerts. Shirley’s expectations are high, and Tony Lip isn’t one to be pushed around. He is aware of the implied danger of the job and walks away. But Dr. Shirley is persistent. With Dolores’ approval, Tony Lips becomes Shirley’s driver.

The initial concerts in the tour are without issue. Taking place largely in the northeast, the reception is friendly. But as the tour takes them further across the Mason Dixon line, local reception becomes increasingly contentious. There are fights in bars, curfews for people of color and banishment from white toilets. The Green Book results in nights where Shirley has to sleep in dumps far beneath the quality of the white facilities where Tony Lip is allowed to stay.

As in any good buddy movie, the more they travel, the more they learn from each other. Each is stubborn to an extreme degree. Each gets their way at different moments as their love/hate relationship leads to self-discovery and frank discussions about the complexities of race, family and art. They challenge each other in ways that forces them to reconsider their own prejudice.

“Green Book” is often less than subtle in its broad characterizations of east coast Italians, juke joint African Americans, and virulent white Southern racists. Tony Lips’ real-life son, Nick Vallelonga, co-wrote the screenplay. His love and admiration for his father with all his warts is apparent.

Danish American Viggo Mortensen gives a full-bodied performance as the flawed Italian American bruiser with a heart of gold and a tenuous grasp on self control. Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley is man of cultured self-discipline. Survival in a White Man’s world has forced him to compromise his art and his dignity. He teaches Tony an appreciation for art, non-violence and self-expression. Tony teaches Shirley to navigate the contradictions and ambivalence of Shirley’s own self-image.

Director Peter Farrelly guides the whole affair with an experienced hand, keeping the action fluid and the growing bond between driver and boss convincing.  

“Green Book” is funny, enlightening and endearing. But in 2018, it can also be achingly relevant.

Green Book” opens Nov. 16 in theaters nationwide.