Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Green Book is a biographical film that follows the 1962 deep south tour of the musical group known as the Don Shirley Trio. The lead of the group, Dr Don Shirley, is also the only black man involved... need I explain the dangers that might happen to a talented black man travelling in the south of America in the 1960s? In order to ensure his safety, Shirley hires a bouncer referred to as 'Tony Lip' to be his driver and bodyguard. In actual fact, the tour was a whole yearlong, but time constraints of a film have fictionalised it into a two-month tour. The film provides a lot of knowledge regarding racial inequality that many, including myself, wouldn’t have known about. For example, the acknowledgement of ‘Sundown Towns’ and their time curfews for non-white people. Most importantly the reference to the ‘Green Book’, has shed a huge amount of light into the intricacies of segregation. The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide specifically for black people who needed to take into consideration which hotels they could stay at, which restaurants they could eat at, where they would and wouldn’t be served gas etc. Really, this little known information booklet was a vital tool for many black people living in America at the time.
‘The world is full of lonely people afraid to make the first move’ – Tony Vallelonga
There are no weak links in this cast AT ALL but the most brilliant performances were by Viggo Mortensen (Tony Lip/Vallelonga) and Mahershala Ali (Dr. Don Shirley), the latter who won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Mortensen who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and it was well deserved. Some would more so recognise Mortensen as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and this role is so far removed from his previous roles, but his mannerisms and accent as a 1960s American-Italian were on par.
Additionally, the chemistry onscreen between Mortensen and Ali was absolutely astounding. The characters of Tony and Shirley are well written and they develop well throughout the film as their friendship also beings to develop. Initially, the two men seem to have nothing in common and are tied by a contract of convenience rather than want. Shirley is a refined and educated man, Tony is brash and crude. Tony is certainly not the most pro-equality person in the film initially, however his friendship with Shirley blooms and we see Shirley even help Tony write love letters to his wife at home. The portrayal of this real-life friendship certainly does its justice.
On a side note, it was also very much appreciated to see that there was a South Asian character in this film! Albeit, the character of Amit was a small one, however it was very refreshing t see a film that acknowledges that South Asian people actually did exist in America in the 60s!
Now, sound effects are something that I am guilty of not always paying attention to in films, however the sound effects in Green Book were hard not to appreciate. Every single punch (and there are many) reverberated through you and was so impactful, but not in a 1990s Bollywood sound effect type of way, these punches sound legit.
Not to mention, the soundtrack was perfect! The first opening song was a piece called ‘That Old Black Magic’ and it certainly sets the tone for 1960s New York with its jazzy upbeat rendition of the Frank Sinatra original. The soundtrack was composed by Kris Bowers and majority of the tracks were recorded by the Green Book Copacabana orchestra, which explains the clarity and grandeur of the music. Other songs like ‘Dear Dolores’ are so beautifully produced and have been added to my personal Spotify list, along with ‘That Old Black Magic’ of course.
Obviously, the music of Dr. Shirley is featured and is a wonderful eye-opener to his genre. Shirley’s choice of instrument was the piano and whilst he had trained in classical music, he was unable to perform ‘white people’s music’ as a black man and therefore produced his own jazz songs but maintained a heavy classical influence in them. Shirley’s music was so profound and powerful; Its nice to expose the talent that Shirley had and not many knew about, which is even stranger considering how much of a musical genius he was. In fact, Shirley was the first black man to be accepted into the Leningrad Conservatory of Music, he deserves recognition!
Ali's performance created an impressive illusion of piano playing. Ali was trained for three months by Kris Bowers in order to get an understanding of the posture and skill of a piano extraordinaire like Shirley, these efforts paid off massively.
Despite its Oscar win for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and other numerous Oscar nominations, Green Book has proved to be quite a controversially received production. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is too overtly racist or that it is a ‘poor attempt to make racism funny’.
There is no doubt that this film is uncomfortable to watch at certain points and it is true that there are several disgustingly racist moments… but 1960s America WAS disgustingly racist, and STILL is (although is now more covert). Therefore, to shy away from this would be to exert a censorship that downplays the experience of black Americans at a point in history when segregation was still partly in place. The whole situation seems akin to a scene in the film where Shirley is expected to perform at a restaurant however, he is told he cannot eat there. This idea of only wanting to see black stories as long as it doesn’t make us uncomfortable as viewers is the same idea, which is RIDICULOUS and perpetuating of racial ignorance.
One could argue that Farelly, as a white director, is unable to produce a fully recognised experience of black people like Don Shirley. Nevertheless, a stong effort has been made and certainly gets the point across. The aim was to show an experience of a forming friendship in its realest possible form. In fact Farrelly has previously stated that he did not include any opening credits because he hoped that cutting straight to the film would immerse the audience into it straight away and make them forget that they were viewing a film. If the aim was to produce a film that showed 1960s America in its true form, then the racial slurs, violence and stereotypes were right to be included. Whilst some events have probably been fictionalised for entertainment purposes that doesn’t mean everything has been made up for the sake of gratuitous racial violence as entertainment. In fact, according to an article on historyvshollywood.com, majority of the events are true to life. ( http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/green-book/)
This film certainly has comedic moments but it needs to, otherwise whole piece would be tragic, besides the bonding of these two men did occur and produce fun memories together. Any attempts to make racism humorous were not seen by me as genuine comedic attempts.
Make no mistake, every racial injustice and every instance of political incorrectness you see are very obviously unacceptable and I think that is the purpose of showing them. Some of the instances that occur, particularly regarding the stereotyping of black people and Italian Americans still occur during todays time, as do innane instances of non-black people believing they know more about the black experience than actual black people do. To see such instances portrayed on screen is a confrontation of the lack of understanding people had and still do regarding the experiences of black communities.
According to his interview with TIME, writer of the film, Nick Vallelonga (Tony's son), had previously asked his father and Shirley if he could make a film about their friendship. Shirley expressed that a film was welcomed, as long as it was made after his death.
It’s amazing to see an extraordinary experience that brought two such vastly different people together. Events that unfolded seemed unreal, like when Shirley was able to contact THE Attorney General to help him and Tony get out of trouble. Yet, such events are nonfiction and make this story an even more exceptional. (POP QUIZ: Do you know who the Attorney General of the time was?)
These two men maintained a friendship right up until their deaths in 2013, which was only a few months apart from one another. The end credits are a wonderful tribute to these men and their relationship that, essentially, defied the expectations of society. Not to mention, Shirley and those involved in this deep south tour risked a lot and braved a lot. That is why this story is being told.
Age Rating: PG-13
5 out of 5*