Green Book is a holiday film that uses a profile of a famous Black pianist and composer together with a historical guide for Black motorists to create a message of hope and cheer for today’s families. The story of an affluent, Black, gay man traveling the Jim Crow south with a white man as his chauffeur is a tale that will catch the attention of families today. In 2018, Black families and families of color are struggling to reconcile the microaggressions and dog whistles dealt on a daily basis — many of which come from the office of the current President. The use of a prolific Black figure and an important historic document only works to make the holiday film more rooted in our own history, more relatable, and more likely to have the elements that will make it a classic.
The White Guy is a Plot Device…and Friend IRL
The audience does not meet the Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali or even get to see the Green Book in action until later in the film. Instead, Viggo Mortenson occupies the opening scenes as Tony Vallelonga, the man who chauffeurs Shirley on his 1962 concert tour. In real life, this trip is how the two men met and also how they became friends. So, it serves the narrative to use Tony as a device to tell audiences about his very important friend. Many people may mistake this as centering whiteness or filtering the narrative through a white male character. However, using Vallelonga as the point of view through which we see Shirley and Jim Crow South works to reveals a deeper message and a more complex narrative than a straight profile could.
Two Important Stories that Alone Couldn’t Capture the Holiday Spirit
The life of Don Shirley is one of a piano prodigy who took a massive career detour due to racism. The racism for someone so exceptional was surprisingly the same as it was for so many Black men in the US at the time. Shirley’s talent was the ability to intricately fuse popular American music and classical European music into concert piano arrangements that were unheard of before his time. He was self-taught as a child playing in his father’s church, but he later received classical training in college. Shirley wanted to be a classical concert pianist but was told that white America would never accept him in such a role. A film about this man’s life would be intriguing, but ultimately it would be more of a documentary and less of a holiday film.
Similarly, the Green Book is a guide created by Black motorists who found themselves having to travel through the convoluted set of laws prohibiting the free movement of Blackness in the south. In many towns and counties, Black people were brutalized and jailed for being out after dark, for eating in places reserved for whites, and more. We’ve seen this story applied several times in the documentary form. Maybe not about the Green Book in particular, but about life for Black people before the Civil Rights Movement.
Vallelonga’s is a Relatable View
Green Book presents the inspiring and important story in a way that all audiences can digest and will eagerly watch more than one time. It uses Vallelonga as a lens to view Don Shirley, the deep south, and the Green Book like audiences would from 2018 — with eyes that were unaware of the nuances of the racism Black people experienced at the time. We didn’t live it, as Vallelonga didn’t, so his is a view that would be of interest to 2018 audiences.
The undereducated Italian American bouncer and part-time body for the mob. He and his wife Dolores played by Linda Cardellini were poor and in desperate need of the work Shirley provided at the time. The man juxtaposed a man like Shirley is what creates the necessary tension, empathy, and humor that Green Book excels in. Furthermore, seeing Shirley’s superhuman piano playing one moment and then the brutality with which whites in the south respond to his presence at a lunch counter is jarring for Vallelonga and for the audience. Similarly, watching Shirley break down in the rain over his own identity, “I am not black enough, I am not man enough, so what am I Tony?” rips our hearts out as it does Vallelonga, who is the target of the speech. Thus, seeing the narrative through the white chauffeur’s eyes gives us another angle through which we can view such historical subjects.
The Light Humor and Feel-Good Message…Actually Work
Green Book works because Peter Farrelly knows when to infuse the humor into the narrative without being crass or racially tone deaf. He also doesn’t lean on the stereotypes that usually fuel racial humor. Even the scene where Vallelonga gets Shirley to try fried chicken for the first time is humorous but quickly placed in context. A few scenes later, the same meal is prepared by rich white patrons as an insult to the concert pianist.
The story does end with a “feel-good” sort of message about hope and family. Some may argue that such a treatment gives the film “racism-lite” feel. But, this type of ending is what audiences look for in a holiday classic. And although it is sometimes the treatment is lighthanded, Farrelly creates the holiday magic without sacrificing and skimping on the realities of the time period. In fact, Green Book gives an education along with a holiday message and will pique the audience’s interest enough to hopefully lead to a search for more information.
Start here, with BGN’s profile of Don Shirley.
Green Book hits theaters November 21.