Arts Review, Station Blog
The Green Book
Peter Farrelly, director and co-writer w/Nick Vallelonga & Brian Hayes Currie
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Frank Vallelonga), Mahershala Ali (Don Shirley)
In 1962, when the old racist Jim Crow segregation laws against American Blacks seeking any form of equality in the US were still in force in the South (and other places), the elegant pianist Don Shirley decided to go on a tour of some of the toughest parts of the region. Accompanying him as his driver and protector was Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer who worked at the Copacabana, one of New York’s most famous clubs, which happened to be renovating that fall.
That’s the delicious premise of The Green Book, the Peter Farrelly bromance, which stars Viggo Mortensen, trading his Danish cool for Italian machismo and Mahershala Ali, effortlessly moving from the drug dealing Juan in Moonlight (his Oscar winning performance) into a sophisticated sui generis performing artist. The ill-matched duo, whom you know will go from suspicious exchanges into warm hearted friendship, are guided in their trip by the Negroist Green Book, a “travel guide” used by “Negro” entertainers of the period to find out what restaurants and hotels they can enter and which ones they can’t.
Making The Green Book a hot property worthy of two brilliant actors is the reality of the situation: Shirley and Vallelonga really did travel those scary roads in the South during the high point of the Civil Rights Movement and had to know the rules of racism or suffer the consequences. While Farrelly, the co-director of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something about Mary, keeps the comic relationship between the working class bouncer and the refined pianist in the foreground, the film always carries an undercurrent of fear. The irony of a black employer hiring someone who is a friend of Mafioso in Manhattan is played up for its own satirical effect. Bubbling not that far under the surface is the realization that Don Shirley has deliberately put himself in harm’s way in order to strike some small blows for equality—and that “Tony Lip” is there to protect him from the consequences of occasionally defying the rules alluded to in the Green Book.
The beauty of films like The Green Book is that you know that you’ll be charmed by the performances and period recreations of the era’s songs and fashion even if you are annoyed and frustrated by such an obviously commercial film, destined to rake in a huge whack of dough for its investors. After all, the story is true and the leads were likable as real-people even before Viggo and Mahershala come on board to make the film happen.
Is there something false about The Green Book? Yes, because nothing all that bad actually took place during the tour and the “odd couple” remained friends to the end. Heartwarming? Yes. A good film to see to show how far “we” have progressed. Of course. So why am I complaining? Guess that’s why they call me a critic.
But seriously: The Green Book is the holiday film you can go to with your liberal parents or in-laws. And, who knows, it may win an Oscar—you can never tell.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.