“The Negro traveller’s inconveniences are many…”—The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1949 edition
This engaging historical comedy-drama had its world premiere at TIFF, where it received high praise as well as the festival’s People’s Choice Award. It went on to receive similar audience awards at multiple film festivals before beginning its cinema run, and with good reason: it is a well made, insightful, and genuinely entertaining film. Director Peter Farrelly, best known for wacky comedies such as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber, has hit his stride with this touching, reality-based story, set in 1962.
Viggo Mortensen, adopting an amusing tough-guy persona and plausible working-class New York accent, plays Tony Vallelonga, known to friends as Tony Lip for his notorious talkativeness, a bouncer at a popular nightclub. When he finds himself out of work for several months, he is offered a job as driver and bodyguard for classical musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Moonlight). As a black man who is wealthy, cultured, and well educated, as well as what Tony Vallelonga would consider effeminate, Dr Shirley is a new and unsettling experience for Tony, who carries the same ingrained racism as most white men of the time. It is explained to him that he was the first choice for this job because of his talent for settling dangerous situations: Don Shirley’s concert tour is to include the American South, where hostile situations are to be expected. Tony reluctantly accepts the position.
The film’s title comes from an annual American publication, a travel guide commonly known as the Green Book, which provided black American travellers with data on which hotels, restaurants, and even towns welcomed black visitors, which of them were restricted by race, and which might be dangerous. At a time when segregation was a fact of life, particularly in the southern states, such information was vital, to ignore it foolish, and even potentially fatal.
The first half of the film is essentially a comedy of manners, in which the two characters try to work together despite their drastic differences in lifestyle and outlook, going through disputes and misunderstandings, and masking their mutual contempt. We also become familiar with Dr Shirley’s widely recognised talent as a concert pianist. As the tour enters the southern US, the pair are required to take more precautions to avoid not only offending the locals, but provoking actual violence, and Tony is called to intervene or to act as bodyguard more than once. The peculiar status of a black celebrity in the US South of 1962 is also explored. Dr Shirley is welcomed, honoured, and applauded by audiences at all his performances, but is still required by segregation laws to eat and sleep at the lowly ‘Coloured Only’ establishments. The film manages, without hyperbole, to portray the untenable position of black Americans of the time through Don Shirley’s experiences. His money, talent, and recognition as an artist provide him no exemption from the racial divisions much of the US lived by at the time. He must be continually on guard or risk violence or arrest for the slightest misstep. His humiliating plight earns Tony’s sympathy and respect, and the unlikely pair begin to form a friendship.
The two main characters and their gradually developing bond are always the central focus of the film, and the sensitive, multi-layered performances of Ali and Mortensen bring the characters and the story to life brilliantly, backed by an excellent supporting cast including Linda Cardellini as Tony’s affectionate wife, as well as cameo appearances from three actual members of the Vallelonga family. The development of their unlikely friendship is touching without becoming sentimental, and the lessons they take from one another’s lives are presented without preachiness. Through Tony’s painfully frank approach, uncomfortable questions are broached and, as he wins his employer’s trust, eventually discussed, allowing for a deeper understanding to develop between the two men. Notable scenes range from the warm and humourous, as when Dr Shirley helps Tony write his wife a proper love letter; to the painful, when Dr Shirley is subjected to bigotry in some of its worst forms, and must sometimes depend on his white driver to vouch for him. Viggo Mortensen manages to present the straightforward Tony Vallelonga with humour, but without making him a caricature, and allowing the man’s genuine warmth to emerge; while Mahershala Ali gives a brilliant, subtle performance that allows glimpses of Don Shirley’s pain and ambiguity to quietly show through his careful reserve. Above all, the film is a surprising glimpse of the previously hidden talents of director Peter Farrelly, and hopefully a sign of more to come.
There was a minor controversy connected with Green Book. While Tony Vallelonga’s family were involved in the development of the script, the family of Don Shirley were not consulted in any way. Dr Shirley’s niece, when interviewed, expressed some dissatisfaction with the way her uncle was portrayed, both in terms of accuracy, and in the fact that he became something of a sidekick to his driver and friend. More than one reviewer has criticised what they saw as presenting the black American experience purely from a white man’s perspective, or even as downplaying the very real dangers of racial minorities living in the 1960s American south. While Don Shirley, especially as depicted by Mahershala Ali, is a full and compelling character, it is hard to deny that Tony Vallelonga is the central focus and that the action, and the racial issues encountered, are shown entirely from his point of view. That fact is underlined by Ali being nominated for a Golden Globe not as co-lead actor, but in the supporting actor category. Dr Shirley has been made a secondary character in his own story, even when the character is a black man in a story largely about racism.