Movie Review: ‘Green Book’ Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
It isn’t very tough to figure out that we currently live in an extremely divided country right now. Oh, sure, we call ourselves the United States, and in times of emergency, we band together. But any given day, you’ll read headline after headline about political parties going after each other, building walls, and racial tensions.
“Sure, things aren’t perfect now, but hell, they’re a lot better than they were 50, 60 years ago, right?” And in a sense, maybe they are. It’s been over 60 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the subsequent Brown II and Brown III rulings which required an end to the nominally “separate but equal” school facilities and required integration. And yet we still see segregation in other forms.
Back in the 1960s, in some parts of the country, it was much of the same – even more pronounced. While federal law mandated an end to segregation in the school system, other institutions, such as hotels and restaurants were afforded more freedom. Many places in southern states still mandated separate facilities, and some towns even instituted a sundown policy, mandating African Americans be off the streets and out of city limits after the sunset.
To counter this, Victor Green began publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book, a AAA-type guidebook from which the film Green Book takes its name. Published for over 30 years, the book meant to inform African American motorists of hotels and restaurants that accommodated people of color to make their travels easier. It’s with this guidebook that Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) begins the trip from New York city through the deep south, driving musical prodigy Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he and the Don Shirley Trio tour the south, playing at multiple venues filled with the upper-class.
Charged with being his chauffeur, and at times his bodyguard, Tony bids a somber goodbye to his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardinelli), promising to be home in time for Christmas. It’s made clear from the beginning that Vallelonga, a bouncer who often mingles with members of the Mafia, isn’t a fan of African Americans, accepting the job only because he’s temporarily out of work and needs the money.
For a film containing a subject of such gravity, we’re given a surprisingly light-hearted movie that has more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. It’s directed by Peter Farrelly (who, along with his brother, directed films such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary), so perhaps that isn’t entirely unanticipated, but Farrelly does a tremendous job weaving humor into the fabric of a subject that’s caused strife for centuries. Much of the humor comes from the conversations between Tony and Don, who clearly come from two different backgrounds. It’s a bemusing twist that the white character, Tony, is the middle-class, world-weary man quick to profanity and throwing punches, while Shirley lives in an elegant apartment above Carnegie Hall, following strict standards such as refusing to play on any non-Steinway pianos.
The result, I must say, is absolutely beautiful, as poignant and flowing as Shirley’s music. Ali and Mortensen have fantastic on-screen chemistry, the dialogue flowing as though they’re actually having conversations, rather than reading a script. You can actually sense both sides learning to concede each other’s points at times when they realize that their worldview isn’t as complete as they’d once thought. The humor keeps most of the film relatively upbeat, balanced well by the more dramatic scenes. For all its upbeat moments, we are still reminded that segregation still exists in some form or another, and that the behavior that we should find abhorrent is still prevalent in many parts of the country.
As I left the theater, I couldn’t help but want to go back in and see it a second time. It isn’t necessarily the best movie of 2018, but it may well have been my favorite. I cannot recommend Green Book highly enough.
Green Book gets an A