Sorry to have missed seeing the advance screening of Green Book at the Coronado Island Film Festival, I was glad when it came back so I could see if it lived up to the hype. I am pleased to say that the endearing friendship portrayed in the film puts a unique spin on a difficult matter. Even though the extreme prejudice of the time period is hard to watch, you smile as walls are broken down and bonds are formed.
This true story takes place in 1962 and showcases the tale of Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen, a bouncer from the Copacabana Club, who is deeply entrenched in his Bronx Italian-American neighborhood. He is also known as “Tony Lip,” a nickname that becomes clear in a comedic scene. Tony applies for a chauffeur/bodyguard job for Dr. Don Shirley, “Doc,” played by Mahershala Ali, an African-American musical prodigy who plans to go on a two-month concert tour from New York to the Jim Crow-era deep South. The interview scene is amusing as Doc sits on a throne in his lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall dressed in a gown resembling African royalty.
You have to wonder how these unlikeliest of duos will fare, especially after you’ve seen Tony throw away water glasses used by black men in his home. But the heart-felt bond is real as they get to know each other and together encounter racism, danger and stereotypes. Their differences go behind skin color, and you will laugh when Tony tells Doc that he himself is “more black” as he teaches Doc how to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken with his fingers. The well-educated Doc is appalled by Tony’s habits and wants him to become more refined with proper diction, less swearing and better manners.
Tony’s wife insists that he write her letters throughout the two-month trip, and although he balks, he makes simple and rudimentary attempts. The letters get better and better as Doc coaches Tony on how to expand his prose. The upgraded letters deeply move Tony’s wife, who shares them with friends and family. It is a heartwarming scene later in the movie when she thanks Doc for helping Tony with his letters.
Unfortunate events occur along the way and thankfully Tony is able to finesse their way out of these situations. Curious about the name of the movie, I discovered that it’s from “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a mid-20th century guidebook that was given to Tony for the trip to help him find African-American friendly motels and restaurants. The story takes place just six years after Nat King Cole was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan at a performance in Alabama.
Everything leads up to the final performance when Doc takes a stand as he is refused service in the restaurant of the hotel in which he is performing. Tony and Doc then end up down the street at the Orange Chicken, a black blues club, where Doc lets loose on the old piano on stage. He sounds amazing, even if it is not on his preferred brand Steinway piano. The hands seen playing the piano shots in this movie are those of the film’s composer, Kris Bowers, who was here in Coronado for the Film Festival.
I didn’t really know much about these two main actors who captured the story so realistically in a truly heart felt manner. You may recognize Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali from The Hunger Games or House of Cards. He is a respected rapper and just became a father last year.
Mortensen immersed himself in the role and put on about 50 pounds for the part. He became a household name in The Lord of the Rings. He speaks seven languages, and is also an accomplished poet, photographer, and painter.
I thought it added authenticity that the movie was co-written by Vallelonga’s son. The real-life Tony and Doc remained friends until their deaths in 2013. One of the quotes that captured the movie for me was when Doc said, “Being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s sad to see the harsh realities of racism but seeing these two become friends as they embark on a journey of a lifetime will educate and entertain you. I recommend this movie, which should be a front-runner for a best picture Oscar nomination.
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Director: Peter Farrelly
Written By: Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, and Brian Currie
Actors: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, including racial epithets, smoking and violence)