Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Director: Peter Farrelly
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Green Book has all the makings of a classic. Based on true events, the film follows the relationship between two very different men as they navigate an eight-week musical concert tour through the Deep South of early 60s America. The contrast between these unique individuals, their varied thoughts on the complex world they inhabit, and their ultimate understanding and appreciation of one another, forms the crux of the two-plus hour narrative.
Being black in a racially prejudiced USA of the aforementioned period was a strange and bigoted time. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy, cultured or dignified, and had much to offer the world with your classical music. Though respect came begrudgingly from white folk, when it came down to it, African Americans or coloured people were treated as if they were not deserving of the rights they had fought so hard for.
As Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is to find out rudely (and despite being prepared), that even though he is the star of the Don Shirley Trio, and has been specially requested to play all over the south, their regard for him can only go so far; he is a man of colour, after all. So, standing ovations and a misplaced sense of gratitude apart, the virtuoso concert pianist is not permitted to use the in-house facilities of many of the establishments he is performing at.
On the other end of the spectrum is the man hired by Shirley to ensure his tour goes as smoothly as possible. The person handpicked exclusively by the former is Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a recently unemployed working-class bouncer from The Bronx who has a wife and two kids. In stark contrast to his new employer, Tony (though rather lovable) is loud, vituperative, and unsophisticated.
Early into the film, a scene involving two African-American handymen at his home, gives us a glimpse into Tony’s mindset. He is perhaps not wholly racist, but wary of coloured folks. After reluctantly agreeing to take on the role of driver, scheduler, and security guard, Tony is handed the ‘Green Book’ by Shirley’s record executives. The book contains a list of hotels, restaurants and bars black people could choose so as to ensure a pleasant experience in the South.
The road tour gets off to a bumpy start, with the concert pianist schooling Tony in matters of basic etiquette. While Don is measured and composed, Tony is a bull in a China shop. The humour in the first half of Green Book is worth savouring, especially when the leads square off against one another with respect to their views and opinions.
These moments include: Don constantly telling Tony to keep his “eyes on the road”; a disgruntled Tony being forced to give back an aquamarine stone he stole from a highway gift shop; Tony impressing upon his boss to try Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time, almost thrusting it into the latter’s face to make a point; Don attempting to convince Tony to improve his diction and consider altering his name from Tony Vallelonga to Tony Valle (for the ease of concert organisers); and the multilingual concert pianist dictating to Tony as he writes to his wife.
As much as it is filled with snippets of great humour, Green Book is a deeply affecting exploration of racial prejudice and injustice. One very powerful scene stuck with me long after the credits rolled. The car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. As Tony begins fixing the overheated engine, Don gets out of the vehicle and unexpectedly locks eyes with a host of coloured people toiling away in the fields beyond. That one look exchanged between two sets of people belonging to the same race but with clearly contrasting social standings, says more than words of intense dialogue ever could.
Don and Tony gradually warming to each other as the trip wears on, making it a point to see things from the other’s perspective, is an aspect that makes Green Book a film about a beautiful friendship. Tony is aghast to know that his musical virtuoso boss isn’t well acquainted with the likes of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. The working-class New Yorker goes as far as to use such terms as “your people” and “your music” while asking Don why he wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of those greats. Don schools his driver-friend about prejudice, saying that he was trained to play Beethoven and Liszt, and just because he is black he doesn’t necessarily have to be well versed in music made popular by African-American singers.
It will be surprising if Green Book doesn’t make the nomination list in multiple categories at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Academy Awards. Both Ali and Mortensen are worthy of some of the highest honours for their respective roles in a film that just about has it all — music, humour, pathos, racial prejudice, friendship, love, and an empathetic understanding of the other.