Racism has been a common theme in a lot of films up for contention for this year’s Oscars. One of those is Green Book. It has caught a lot of attention since it was released this year.
It’s 1962. Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga is the best bouncer in all of New York City. However the night club he works at is going through two months or renovations. He needs to find work to pay for his one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two sons. At first the only way he could make money was in an eating contest. He’s offered an interview to be a driver for Dr. Don Shirley on an eight-week tour of the Southern US. He goes to the interview, in Don’s apartment above Carnegie Hall, and is unhappy to see Don Shirley is black. Tony rejects at first, Don is insistent due to the strength of his references. Tony consults with his wife Dolores first. She agrees. Tony promises to white her and the boys. One thing he notices is that his accompanying musicians, Oleg and George, will be going in a different car.
They begin the tour in the Midwest before going to the south. The two start clashing at the beginning; Tony being asked to act with more refinement and Don disgusted with Tony’s habits. Tony is especially surprised how Don is so well-educated, not into rock ‘n roll and blues and fried chicken, which Don takes into offence. However it’s during the tour that he notices just how good of a classical piano player Don is. He also notices the racist treatment Don gets when he’s off-stage, including one time having a shabby piano with junk on it on one stage. Then one night, a group of white men threaten to kill Don in a bar. Tony rescues him and instructs Don not to go out with him during the rest of the tour.
During the journey, Tony stays at his own hotel while Don stays at the hotels in the Green Book, which is a hotel guide for African American travelers. At times, Tony can see Don drinking. Don admits to Tony that he is a divorced man and has isolated himself from his brother and his professional achievements. Don also help Tony to write his letters to the family. One night, Tony finds Don arrested at the YMCA for a gay encounter with a white man. Tony is able to bribe the officer for Don’s freedom, which Don sees it as ‘rewarding’ the officer. Another night at a sundown town, a white officer arrest Don and then arrest Tony after being punched by him. Don goes to call ‘his lawyer,’ but the officers get a phone call from Bobby Kennedy to have them both released.
The tour is winding down, but not with one last dispute between Tony and Don. Tony tells Don he thinks he’s ‘blacker’ than him. That causes Don to lose it and lament that his affluence gives him the feeling he’s an outsider to other African Americans while white people treat him like an outsider. His homosexuality only adds to him feeling alone in this world.
The final performance is in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the performance, Don is refused a seat for dinner and being the guest musician changes nothing. Tony attempts to fight the manager, but Don refuses to play. The two find themselves at a predominantly black blues club. When Don performs, the crowd loves him. The two return back to NYC. Tony invites Don up for dinner, but Don shies away. It isn’t until sometime later that Don musters the heart to visit Tony’s apartment. Here he’s made a welcome guest.
The film has been generating a lot of attention, both good and bad. The film’s script was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. This was mostly told through the point of view of Nick. However the family of Don Shirley was not happy with what they saw. Many claim that Don did not consider Tony his friend, but his associate. Peter Farrelly admitted his fault in not consulting with Don’s family before the film. Actually Peter didn’t know of how many members of Don’s family Don was still in contact with. In fact even that scene of Don arrested at the YMCA with another man raises a lot of eyebrows too since Nick admitted Don never ‘came out’ to them in his lifetime.
I can’t say much for a film that claims to be ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’ No such film is 100% true. There are always some plot twists and movie cliches added in. In fact one could simply call The Sound Of Music ‘a musical based on a true story.’ The accuracy may be in question, but the film does have a lot of relevance. We think we have racial tension now or a big racial divide now, it was bigger back then. This was a year before Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. This was a year or two before schools in the southern US were desegregated. That ‘Green Book’ for African American travelers was very needed in the South because they could be attacked by hostile whites. Discrimination was that bad back then. There were still public lynchings happening.
One thing the film does is that it gives us something to think about. We’re living in hostile times right now, especially on the subject of race. There are still a lot of misunderstandings between races. The film sent a message that maybe if we stopped, calmed down, and talked things out, we can learn we have more in common that we have differences. Another thing the film succeeds in is testing our expectations of what people of certain races are like. There were many scenes where Tony asked Don about rock ‘n roll musicians and fried chicken. Don was the complete opposite where he played classical piano, was very well-educated, and couldn’t stand the thought of fried chicken. A lot of traits most white people, and not only Tony, would be surprised to see in an African American. Also Tony and his life and lack of education may surprise a lot of African Americans of what whites are like. Like I say, if we took the time to talk, we’d be surprised.
The film may present Don Shirley to be a very wealthy, very successful African American, but the film does show that despite the wealth and high education, Don still feels like an outsider. That’s another theme of the film: personal insecurities. History can easily explain why Don would feel uncomfortable around white people. However his identity, wealth and background has made him feel like an outsider to other blacks also eats at him. That scene where the two stop in the south in a cotton field with a group of African Americans working on and they all stop to look at Don is a symbol of his insecurities. That’s a reminder to us of how there are some that feel they don’t fit into their own race. However that scene where Don plays rock ‘n roll at the jazz bar showed that he had a lot to overcome and that he actually does fit in. Also the scene at the end where Tony welcomes Don into the house at Christmas, though demanding his family not refer to black people by that certain slur, sends a message that a major way to overcome racism is simply befriending people of another race.
You can dispute the truthfulness of the story but you will have to acknowledge that the script and story are put together very well. Nick Vallelonga isn’t just Tony’s son. He’s had years of screenwriting experience. Teaming up with Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly on the script, they deliver a great story that’s worth knowing. Farrelly also does a very good job in directing this film. A complete change of pace from the charmingly crude comedies from the Farrelly Brothers. Viggo Mortensen was solid in character in his role as Tony, but Mahershala Ali was also excellent in his role. It will leave you questioning who was the lead actor in the film? The film also had some good supporting performances such as Linda Cardellini as Dolores and various other members of the Vallelonga family in their roles. The mix of previously recorded music and the original music of Kris Bowers helped make the film as well.
Green Book may leave you questioning the accuracy of the story, but it’s also an enlightening story nonetheless. It will leave you thinking as well, which is what we need at a time like this.