The Negro Motorist Green Book was a travel guide for African Americans. Published until 1966, it provided black drivers with safe locations for food, gas, and lodging. This was particularly needed in the deep south, where lynchings, harassment, and racial discrimination were pervasive. Green Book is the true story of a peculiar road trip for the era. A wealthy, black concert pianist is chauffeured through the Jim Crow South by a burly, white bouncer. The film levels the ugliness with warm humor. It is a story of friendship and understanding in a time of racial oppression.
Green Book opens in 1962 New York City. Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer at the famed Copacabana night club. A bruiser with a short temper and big appetite, Tony was a devoted family man. The club is shut down for renovations. Struggling to pay rent, Tony is given the opportunity to interview for a long term driving job. He’s stunned to meet the renowned concert pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) living in a penthouse above Carnegie Hall. Erudite and debonaire, Don Shirley spoke several languages and had three doctorate degrees. He wasn’t remotely impressed by the gruff Tony Lip. But understood he was the right man for the job.
Tony Lip is hired to chauffeur Don Shirley through the southern states for an eight week concert tour. The two men couldn’t be more different. Shirley couldn’t stand Tony’s smoking, cursing, and grotesque eating. Tony was mystified that as a black man, Shirley had never eaten fried chicken, listened to Little Richard, or eaten without utensils. A rocky start leads to a deep connection between the two men. Tony watches as a brilliant man is constantly threatened and demeaned because of the color of his skin. He questions why Don Shirley, with all of his money and fame, would put himself through such an awful experience. Tony learns the value of true dignity and respect. Don Shirley gains a trusted friend in his darkest hours.
Green Book is a moving, heartfelt film. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali infuse empathy into their characters. These were good men who discovered common ground in each other; the hideous racist backdrop omnipresent. Their burgeoning friendship juxtaposed against an environment built on segregation. Even the quieter scenes with a white man driving a black man through the dusty sharecropper fields are startling. The poor, rags-covered black farmers stunned by the sight.
Green Book is seen from Tony Lip’s point of view. The main criticism of the film being another story of black persecution from a white perspective. That point may be valid in a general sense, but is entirely simplistic. Director/co-writer Peter Farrelly, known for his raucous comedies (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), doesn’t beat the audience with a racism stick. There’s an intellectual journey taken by the primary character. Tony Lip begins the film with a certain view of black people. His experience driving Don Shirley not only enlightens, but disgusts him as well. He is appalled at Don Shirley’s treatment. His long held beliefs are changed. Tony Lip is a window to the black experience in the 1960s. This is the message Green Book conveys. The humor adding much needed levity to the stark reality.
From Universal Pictures, Green Book sheds further light on America’s troubled racist history. It’s graphic at points, but an uplifting story of overcoming differences. Most audiences watching this film have never heard of the Green Book. That in itself is evidence of positive change.