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'Green Book' offers far more than your whimsical road movie

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. Universal Pictures

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. Universal Pictures

Published Feb 20, 2019


"Green Book" premiered last week on local screens, but since its overseas release last year, it’s been awash with controversy.

Peter Farrelly’s film is set in 1962 and has a former white bouncer driving the talented black classical pianist, Dr Don Shirley, through America’s Deep South.

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Tony (“Lip”) Vallelonga is to ensure that the pianist remains safe while he carries out his task of driving Shirley through the towns where he’s booked to perform. Tony must also protect him from any potentially explosive racial situations.

The "Green Book" refers to the name of the booklet that indicates the hotels where blacks are allowed to sleep.

But, and here’s the but, it’s seen largely through the prism of the white bouncer - Vallelonga’s son Nick happens to be one of the three scriptwriters.

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The family of Dr Shirley has expressed dissatisfaction over how he is portrayed and Ali reportedly even called the family and apologised for any offence he might have caused.

On the surface, the film might be viewed as a whimsical road movie where both parties - initially hesitant to spend time together - are forced to throw their lot together and increasingly accept each other and understand each other’s differences.

Mortensen offers an excellent portrayal of the low-level mobster. When the Copacabana club he works for closes for renovations, it’s easy to see why he would be a great candidate for keeping Dr Shirley out of trouble on the road.

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He’s known as “Tony Lip” because he has the amazing ability of getting people to do what they don’t want to.

During the drive, it’s obvious that the debonair and sophisticated pianist is initially highly irritated by his driver.

He’s a loudmouth and Shirley, sitting at the back of the luxury Cadillac, clearly straddles two worlds - the world of the astute piano player and that of a black man who does not fit any preconceived ideas of American society yet is tolerated due to his talent and capacity to entertain, but discriminated against by those not in the know.

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There are some great touches - like when Tony plays the music of the time on the radio and as Aretha Franklin belts out her hits, he’s shocked that the ever-erudite Shirley has never heard of the soul singer.

Throughout the trip, we see the racism they come up against and it’s well portrayed, hitting home the senselessness of the situation and how it affects both men from their different vantage points.

At a concert venue at a lavish Southern mansion, Shirley is prevented from using the inside toilet even though he is the guest artist. Tony drives him back to his hotel to use the bathroom, his increasing outrage is matched by Shirley’s sense of humiliation and virtual helplessness.

Ali plays the pianist superbly, showing his despair, inner conflict and lack of belonging, each racial incident making him feel more and more alienated.

Did I like it? Despite the controversy that has surrounded it, Farrelly does a consummate job of telling this story of two real-life characters. Mortensen’s depiction of the boorish and coarse Vallelonga and his evolution is matched by Ali’s artistry, and there are plenty of moments of levity throughout.

It’s really enjoyable to watch and despite the criticism of it being a “white saviour” film, it’s essentially about two racially diverse men who get to know each other - and are thus saved from their own shortcomings.

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