Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Green Book: A Road Trip Into History, Segregation, and Friendship

Reel Reviews

“Green Book” takes place during the 1960s. Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) makes a living as a bouncer in New York. When the nightclub he works for closes down for renovations, however, he finds himself looking for a way to support his family until it reopens. Fortune soon comes to him as he’s offered the job as a driver for an African-American pianist named Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The catch, however, is he’ll be driving the classical musician through the Deep South for a two-month tour. Despite the hardships they’re bound to face, Tony accepts the position. As the snobbish musician and crude bouncer find themselves stuck together for the duration of the tour, they’ll find even while roaming a land littered with outlandish rules and intolerance, the most unlikely friendships can sprout.

“Green Book” is like a cross between a true story, a road trip film, and “The Odd Couple.” We have two polar opposite characters placed into a tough situation where they have to learn to cope with one another, while dealing with the challenges they face along the way. This is one of the few films I’ve seen that finds a way to show the outlandish period of racism and segregation during the 1960s, while being able to maintain a funny persona to the point where it becomes a feel-good kind of movie. The overall humor and main attraction of the movie comes from the chemistry between our two lead stars: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. They each work fluently off one another, and both practically disappear into their characters.

Viggo Mortensen was fantastic as Tony Vallelonga—a tough family man from the Bronx trying to make ends meet for his family. Now, there may be some people out there who might find Tony’s persona a bit trite given he’s an Italian-American who eats a lot, is not very educated, and gets into fights. However, it actually suits his overall character. Even in the movie he admits that he’s a bit of a stereotype; he just doesn’t care. Tony just wants to live life his way, and he’ll fight anyone that says otherwise. Which is one of the themes of the film—living life like you want to, with who you want, and not letting a bigoted society shame you.

As for Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley, he was the absolute perfect choice to cast in the film. As most readers expect, many of the dilemmas he and Tony face stem from Don Shirley being African-American. However, the film has an added twist that really plays to the isolation feeling in the movie. See, Dr. Shirley is a man of high society and class, but because he’s in the Deep South, he’s forced to take shelter in “Colored Only” areas. Yet even there, Dr. Shirley is ostracized by his own people, who view him as a bigshot who thinks he’s above them. From both sides, Don Shirley is left an outcast. Which makes it all the sadder—but also touching—when you consider Tony Vallelonga is literally the only friend he has out there by his side. Which plays into another theme of the movie—isolation. The feeling of being alone, shunned, and unwanted. And it’s those moments when our real friends show themselves.

Before I make my conclusion, there’s one last piece that needs addressing, and that’s the title of the film: “Green Book.” The title is based on a traveler’s guide known as “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide we see the characters having to use in order to get around. It was a guidebook created with the sole purpose of providing African-American individuals with the locations to lodgings, restaurants, and other various places that would serve them. It sounds revolting—and I agree—but if you look at it from another perspective, the book was created to help African-Americans safely get around during a segregated period in our country. It was a guide that aided travelers in locating specific spots where they would be accepted, while avoiding the more racially uncultured areas. The author himself, an African-American travel writer named Victor H. Green, stated that the purpose of the book was “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties.” Despite the book’s intentions, it was eventually discontinued after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Green Book” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language, which includes racial epithets, smoking, along with some violence and suggestive material. There’s no more I can say about the film other than it’s a must-see movie with a satisfying story, and by the time the end credits roll, you’ll be left fulfilled and content. Which is why the final score for “Green Book” is an 8.5 out of 10!

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