A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver for an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
Green Book won’t win the Dove-Approved Seal of anything, but some of the language that disqualifies it is exactly what makes this movie a thought-provoking and sometimes comedic two hours that the Academy will have to seriously consider.
It’s the movie you get when The Odd Couple and Driving Miss Daisy have a baby. Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga were the real-life people who formed the unlikeliest of alliances for two months in 1962 America, which Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen brilliantly recreate on the big screen in 2018, when the same sentiments stain the America that’s supposed to be becoming great again.
Ali, as Shirley, an African-American concert pianist, is a cross between Felix Unger and Miss Daisy, only he’s the passenger, not the driver. But his is a powerful vehicle showing how to hold on to dignity amid the indignity of Southern inhospitality. Mortensen, the Oscar Madison/Hoke Colburn mix as Vallelonga (more often called by his nickname, “Tony Lip”), is a Bronx-bred Italian-American bouncer at New York’s Copacabana club.
Dr. Shirley is a quirky character who defies easy stereotypes, probably drinks too much and feels ill at ease among his own race. He is obviously unwelcome among whites—even among Vallelonga’s friends, who themselves endured slurs. He’s a loner, and one scene makes it clear he’s also gay. Vallelonga is rough around the edges. He’s crass and not particularly eloquent. He’s eating or smoking in most of the scenes, which explains why Mortensen looks almost unrecognizable from some of his previous roles. He’s put on maybe 45 pounds, beefing up so as to make himself look the part of a bouncer, because bouncers have a particular skill set that make them effective. Vallelonga calls it “public relations,” and it’s evident early in the movie.
It’s also evident they need each other. The Copacabana is closing for renovations and Vallelonga needs work and money for his sweet wife (Linda Cardellini) and two kids. Shirley needs to hire somebody to ensure that he arrives safely at his venues, correctly anticipating being thrust into the teeth of racism on an eight-week tour that takes his trio through Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and finally, Alabama. This brings them together in a scene where Shirley is interviewing Vallelonga from an elevated throne in his apartment above Carnegie Hall, and Vallelonga is on a lower level pursuing the job, though he makes it clear there are some things he just won’t do.
While Shirley’s predominantly white Southern audiences appreciate his virtuosity, there are lines they won’t let him cross. Shirley is not allowed to eat in, lodge in, or use the restroom in the same facilities as whites. That’s the basis for the movie’s name; a “green book” was a guide to the places blacks could “vacation without aggravation.” That might’ve been necessary and commonplace in 1962, but it strikes a particularly resonant chord in a day where racial tensions in America have exposed biases in law enforcement that many thought were long buried.
Shirley and Vallelonga are pulled over by the police more than once. Shirley is beaten in a Southern bar. Vallelonga protects him, pleads his case, and eventually comes to terms with his own racism. We see Vallelonga throw into the garbage a glass used by a black man early in the movie, but as the story plays out—co-written by his real-life son, with a cast including several real-life family members—we see he has changed significantly.
The real question is, have we changed over this same span of time? Dr. Martin Luther King famously referred to 11 a.m. on Sundays as the most segregated hour in America—the time when most of us are in our churches. Shirley and Vallelonga take a principled stand, even at great financial risk, toward the end of the movie to change that. The movie, applauded at its end, forces us to ask ourselves: Have we? Would we?