MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
If you have seen any of the trailers for Green Book or even glanced at the poster for the movie, you will probably have figured out just about everything about this film. It’s a cross-racial buddy road trip movie that is a combination of Driving Miss Daisy (with a white chauffeur driving a privileged black musician) and The Odd Couple with Viggo Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga standing in for the slob Oscar Madison and Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley as fastidious Felix Ungar.
It’s mid-November in 1962 and Tony’s job as a bouncer at the Copacabana is on hiatus while the club remodels, so he is glad to take on an 8-week job as driver for Don Shirley, who is going on a tour of the Deep South with the jazz/classical Don Shirley Trio, consisting of Shirley on piano, accompanied by cello and acoustic bass. They will be playing at a variety of venues, including concert stages, hotels and private homes. Since Jim Crow is alive and well, it is important to have a driver able to negotiate the never-ending uncomfortable moments of prejudice for anyone caught driving while black. Tony is given the current copy of The Negro Motorist’s Green Book by Victor H. Green, a guide to safe restaurants, hotels, and other travel destinations for persons of color.
The film establishes early on that Tony is racist and fairly comfortable with his racism, knowing that the world has their own stereotypical ways of denigrating the Italian-American experience. (It probably doesn’t help things much by having the screenplay loaded up with every cliché imaginable in its depiction of Tony’s extended family.) Yet Tony takes his job seriously and develops an early give-and-take with Dr. Shirley that will open up both of their worlds. Tony is also a loving family man and promises his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) that he will write home every day and be back in time for Christmas.
I had a hard time believing that the record company would hire a driver for Don Shirley with the other two musicians driving themselves in a second car, but this allows Tony and Don to have the most time together to banter and bond. It also seems fairly condescending to put Tony in charge of the Green Book, a well-known resource for the black community.
There are a few poignant turns in the story and more than a few painful incidents, but what keeps the movie engaging is Mahershala Ali’s subtle and nuanced performance as Don Shirley, enjoying fame and prestige onstage but living a lonely isolated life otherwise.
This movie may shock a few viewers with a reminder of how harsh the world was back in 1962, a few years before the Civil Rights Act (The Green Book ceased publication in 1966). But, sadly, the current climate in America is such that openly racist politicians are routinely elected into office. Blatant racism may be more covert these days but it is every bit as diabolical.
P.S. As a kid in high school, I was introduced to the Don Shirley Trio in 1968 and have been a fan for 50 years. It would be great to see his recordings reissued. Regrettably, Green Book includes only brief snippets of the repertoire, ably recreated by Kris Bowers and studio musicians. I encourage you to head to Spotify, Apple Music or You Tube to sample this singular musical genius for yourself.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: A funny and bittersweet fact-based story about overcoming ethnic and racial division through mutual experiences and growing friendship.
Four pitchforks:Ever-present racism; violence; above-average swearing for a PG-13 movie, including racist epithets; one scene of sexual shame; and – boy, did they ever like to smoke in the early 60s!
Do you have comments about this movie or movie review? E-mail your comments. (Your name and UM affiliation must be supplied in order for your comments to be posted.)
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
COMMENTS! Do you have comments about this movie or movie review?
E-mail comments. (Comments will be posted to our web site.)
The East Ohio Conference Office:
located in North Canton, OH.
near the Akron-Canton airport.
8800 Cleveland Ave. NW ·
North Canton, OH 44720
Toll Free: 800-831-3972
Office Hours: Monday through Friday 8:30 am – 4:00 pm.
©2016 EAST OHIO CONFERENCE. All Rights Reserved.