Starring Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, and Iqbal Theba
Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Rated: PG for violence, substance use, and coarse language
Runtime: 130 minutes
The film is already available by digital download and will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment on Tuesday, March 12. Visit http://uni.pictures/GreenBook.
This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner is a real crowd-pleaser, even if it offers a mostly non-controversial, non-confrontational look at a real interracial friendship in America that started in the 1960s. It’s a complicated story if you delve into it – and it’s possibly an even more complicated story surrounding the movie – but the surface value still holds a lot of tender beauty.
Green Book is a well-made and polished film focused on the story of how New York tough guy Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip) came to the acquaintance of the great pianist Dr. Don Shirley over the course of a two-month music tour through the Americas, prominently in the deep South. Regardless of the negativity that the film has received in the press, it still reverberates with wholesomeness and comedy, juxtaposing the Driving Miss Daisy narrative, in a way that still makes it a relevant and accessible work for the ages.
It’s basically an odd couple/road trip movie with a gruff, uncultured but lovable white bouncer from New York who gets to take the wheel to a sophisticated, well-mannered black pianist from Florida on a tour through the American Midwest and Deep South, putting up with each other while learning all kinds of important stuff along the way too, like how to keep your cool in the face of adversity and enjoying simple pleasures like eating fried chicken. There’s nothing wrong with that, just don’t quote this movie in your thesis paper on contemporary race relations.
In 1962, Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) is a dressed-up bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub, a place where Bobby Rydell and his band play for the swooners. Trouble? Call on Tony Lip to offer a well-placed fist-kiss to smooth things over on the floor so that the music can keep playing on stage and in-between the lovers at the tables. He plays an important if rough-and-ready roller in the big scheme of things.
But then the Copa closes. Lip isn’t a top dog any more, and has a wife and kids at home in a small apartment. Bills will pile up even if he can’t pay them down. A job is what he needs. A well-timed offer comes to him, courtesy of Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The musical genius has an apartment above the main auditorium at Radio City Music Hall and his record label has him in need of a chauffeur, ideally one who is well-acquainted with protecting assets. Sounds like a job for Lip. He gets the two-month assignment and is handed a copy of the Green Book, an actual travel guide that sets out the accommodations facilities that are accommodating to people of African-American ethnicity. Off they embark on their musical and sociocultural adventure. Sure they experience some bumps along the road but rest assured they make it back intact and all the better for the travels too.
One Google-y look into the cyberworld will show that the Shirley family wasn’t entirely impressed with how it all turned out, however, even leading Ali to apologize to them and director Farrelly to state that he didn’t think that there were many of Shirley’s family left around to even consult or that he and the other filmmakers – including Vallelonga's son Nick who is credited as co-writer – took such liberties with the truth as to besmirch Shirley’s legacy. Oops.
I still see that this is a great American story, although it sure does seem to me to stay on the simpler side of some complex and dark troubles: can anyone sit un-awkwardly through the scene where Mortensen’s Italian-American bouncer says he is blacker than his new Jamaican-American friend because he spent more time on the streets, struggling to eke out a living, while Shirley himself lives a more refined existence in a suite filled with art? Uhhh ... really? C’mon ... let’s turn the tables here for a sec. Could anyone ever imagine Shirley admonishing Lip with the opposite? “I’m whiter than you are because I know classical music!” Doubtful.
What sets this story apart for me is not just the stellar acting by both Ali and Mortensen. They’re both excellent performances and patently ready to be enjoyed again and again. What really stands out is how our movie Shirley is more accustomed to playing in white circles even though he is largely unaccepted as one of them. He was born in Florida to Jamaican immigrants but the black connection seemed eternally elusive to him. He’s the outsider of all outsiders. The fact that he toured with a Russian musician (as part of the Don Shirley Trio) probably didn’t help his widespread acceptance, especially in America of that era, much either.
The film took not only the Best Picture Oscar prize but also the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy and the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Fest. Ali also gained his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar after 2016’s Moonlight. Mortensen, who I would consider a bona fide indicator of a movie’s strength, was also nominated for Best Actor, though he didn’t win.
And herein lies one of my concerns. I understand that the film starts off by following Tony Lip’s narrative arc, and that’s important to the overall success of the film. Green Book, however, isn’t just Tony Lip’s story, and that means Ali (with his dignified, restrained, cultured portrayal of the man) should absolutely have been considered for Best Actor also. The movie is just as much – or more – about Dr. Shirley, a real artist who certainly would have had more impact on America’s cultural life than a bouncer from New York. Doesn’t that make him a worthy subject for a more prestigious category such as Best Actor? Oscar does love a well-done biopic, and a figure who still holds a lasting legacy in musical circles as a frontiersman in classical jazz piano should have been a prime candidate. You should really search out his stuff and give it a good solid listen. I’ve got him playing his Orpheus in the Underworld suite right now while I write this.
After all, the fellow who actually did win that prize was Rami Malek, who played Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, although it’s understood that Mercury was a more contemporary and far more widely popular figure. There are many similarities between the two, though. If I’m the only one who sees the parallels and the disjointed affectations of the Academy, then I hope this note reaches a larger audience and opens up a broader conversation about race somewhere in Hollywood. Nominating Black Panther for Best Picture is one thing, but it’s not a movie about a real black man, in case you needed to have it pointed out.
Speaking of the awards, whoever thought that people in 1994 would say “Hey, I’ve gotta go see Dumb and Dumber. I just know that Peter Farrelly is going to win an Oscar some day.”
For my own thinking, there is still much to be gained from a film that shows two people from different perspectives and experiences being able to come together and share common ground and even lasting friendship. Even if this film is basically about as weighty as the schmaltzy bantam Best Picture Forrest Gump with a smidgen-y touch of the racial tension of the heartstring-plucking Crash (2004), I have to admit being touched by the displays of affection between the two fellas and the life lessons they learned from each other. It’s a good story, whether it is true enough or not. This is a Hollywood movie, after all. Some details have surely been fudged along the way just to make it sweeter and more palatable for a broader audience. And that’s okay.