The title of the film “Green Book” refers to a manual from the era before Civil Rights containing information for African-Americans who were traveling. It provided lists of hotels, restaurants and other establishments open to black people so they could find places they would be safe at while on the road.
Uncomfortable realities of America’s racially-deplorable past, like the existence of such a book, are what “Green Book” honestly confronts. The movie reveals how far we’ve come and how far we’ve unfortunately yet to go, as some of the scenes feel all too familiar.
“Green Book” follows the true story of Donald Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight.” Shirley is a brilliant concert pianist who embarks on a 2-month long tour, including stops in the deep South. Shirley, a black man, hires Tony Vallelonga — played by Viggo Mortensen — an Italian-American tough guy from the Bronx, to be his driver and guard through the dangerous environment of the South in the ’60s.
Shirley and Vallelonga couldn’t be more different. Shirley is a classy, intelligent and articulate wealthy musician with a complicated past. Vallelonga is a blue-collar family man with more street smarts to offer than proper grammar. Watching Ali and Mortensen — Ali with an Oscar win and Mortensen with two Oscar nominations — onscreen as these two characters is entertainment at its finest. Their chemistry is wonderful and they communicate both the light-hearted times and more impactful aspects of the film powerfully and effortlessly.
Written by Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie and real-life Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga, the script, gives room for these brilliant actors to bring these actual people back to life with a great deal of humanity — Shirley and Vallelonga both died within months of each other in 2013.
There are hilarious scenes like when Vallelonga shows Shirley how to eat fried chicken.There are also times of disturbing discrimination, such as when the men of the Vallelonga family refuse to leave Vallelonga’s wife (Linda Cardellini) alone with black men repairing her kitchen sink. As a true story should, it feels like a remarkable telling of real life, acknowledging the good and the bad.
Farrelly also directs and unsurprisingly contributes to the humor of the film, given his past directing credits include “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” The laughs work well, and provide dimension to the characters’ relationship. With this extra depth, more meaning is given to the difficult moments that address racial injustice like racial slurs, police brutality and much more.
The most powerful scene of the film finds Vallelonga asking Shirley why he’s so unfamiliar with black culture, as they are “his people.” Ali excellently delivers Shirley’s rage and confusion stemming from his internal conflict of not being accepted by black or white people. The moment feels timely given divisive lines continuously being drawn in society.
In fact, timely is an excellent word to describe “Green Book.” The true story of Don Shirley and Tony Lip couldn’t have come at a better time. We need a reminder that things can be ugly, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. People and things can change, and that shift comes when people learn from those who are different from them, just as Shirley and Vallelonga did.