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Green Book [Movie Review]

Summary

Green Book is a drama that takes place in 1962 starring Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley. The movie tells the story of an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, New York who serves as chauffeur and security for an African-American classical pianist touring the Midwest and South.

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Show Notes

Green Book is a drama that takes place in 1962 starring Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley. The movie tells the story of an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, New York who serves as chauffeur and security for an African-American classical pianist touring the Midwest and South.

During this time in America, society was still openly segregated. This was especially true in the South where Jim Crow laws placed social, economic, and legal restrictions on Black people’s use of public resources and facilities. As a result, Black people were limited with regards to where they could shop, eat, stay, etc.

The Negro Motorist Green Book, usually referred to as just the Green Book was created and published by Victor Hugo Green in New York City from 1936 to 1966. The Green Book was a travel guide that provided Black travelers, vacationers, and business people with the names and addresses of local businesses around the country that would allow them to utilize their facilities while traveling. It consisted primarily of rooming houses, motels/hotels, restaurants and other travel-related establishments.

While the movie and guide book share the same name, it’s important to set your expectations. The movie’s major theme is a bird’s eye view of why the Green Book would have been needed. But, the film is not the history of the Green Book nor does it delve deeply into any specific locations that were featured in the guide book. Instead, as the movie progresses we alternately see Dr. Shirley visit Whites Only and Colored Only establishments. In addition, while the story is about a Black musician touring the Midwest and South, it is told from the perspective of the White chauffeur.

Storytelling in mainstream media tends to be told from the perspective of White people regardless of if the story is actually about the experiences of a Black person. In this case, the driving force behind the story is really the experiences of Dr. Shirley as he’s the one embarking on the tour and having to deal with segregation, degradation, and the ever-present threat of violence. But instead of the movie being told from his perspective and hearing his inner thoughts we get the story as Frank sees it.

The movie begins with a look into Frank’s everyday life. We see him work as a bouncer, meet his wife and friends, learn about his financial situation, etc. There is no such indication from his wife but Frank and his friends are racists and casually use racial slurs. Frank isn’t a very complicated man but he’s fleshed out and feels human.

On the flip side, first contact with Dr. Shirley takes place in his home which is an opulent and nicely decorated apartment located above Carnegie Hall. When we first meet Dr. Shirley he glides into the room wearing what I would describe as an extra long white and gold dashiki with some no-sock rich man dress loafers. Honestly, when I saw that, I was done. I giggled and had to watch the scene again. I immediately wondered, “Who is this guy and where is he from?” It was obvious that he was going to be quite a character.

There was a minor point that stood out to me but I just didn’t get. Dr. Shirley is actually on tour as part of a trio. He rides in the back seat of one car with Frank while the other two guys are driving in the front seat of a separate car. I might have missed it but it wasn’t clear to me why Dr. Shirley didn’t just ride with the other two members of the trio.

Usually in a duo/buddy film like this, the Black guy is from the wrong side of the tracks and the White guy introduces him to another way of living. But, there’s a role reversal here where the White guy is the driver and the Black guy is the VIP. Dr. Shirley attempts to Americanize Frank’s name and teach him proper diction. While Frank educates Dr. Shirley about pop music of the time and introduces him to fried chicken. Now, I’m not saying that all Black people like fried chicken and R&B. But, rather where is Dr. Shirley from and what is his life like that he seems to have had no contact with either?

Dr. Shirley goes out of his way to be proper and above board at all times. He’s very high strung and seems to have a drinking problem. The two journey through the Midwest without any major issues from external people or forces. Instead, the only conflict at this point is the two men adjusting to each other.

Things get real when they get to the South and Dr. Shirley arrives at the first Coloreds Only hotel. Frank is surprised by the untidy appearance of the hotel and asks for confirmation that this is actually the place listed in the Green Book. Dr. Shirley is a sharply dressed man who seems to be at least financially comfortable if not quite well-to-do. To see this man who takes great pride in appearances be forced to stay in such a ramshackle place is unsettling. Something to note is that while the place looks rundown, the other people at the motel joke around with Dr. Shirley and invite him to hangout with them.

Meanwhile Frank is able to stay at what appears to be a nicer or at least reasonably cleaner Whites Only hotel. Speaking of which, there are these little moments in the movie that made me giggle. One of which was Frank sitting on his bed by himself in this hotel room. I’m from New York City and love a good slice from a local pizzeria. From the standard large pie, I can eat about two slices. I’ve seen some people eat maybe three or four. In most situations adults fold the slice in half and eat from the narrow end to the crust. I have never in my life seen someone take a whole pizza pie, fold it in half, and commence to eating. My mind was blown. Because who does this?

From this light-hearted moment comes the first real brush with danger when Dr. Shirley leaves his hotel room to go out and get a drink. In this instance and a few others it becomes apparent that Dr. Shirley’s tour of the South is not just a matter of happen-stance. Rather, he has made a conscious decision to journey into the South to agitate social norms.

At first glance, he seems out of touch with various facets of what would be considered typical Black life and could be considered a sell-out by some. But, the effort he puts into the way he portrays himself indicates that it’s not that simple. Dr. Shirley is trying to figure out who he is as a person while also looking for acceptance and his place in the world.

Later, the car stops near a field where a group of Black people are toiling away in the hot sun. They’re performing manual labor so they aren’t dressed in fancy clothes and actually look pretty shabby. Dr. Shirley meanwhile is relaxed and nicely dressed. They look each other over but no words or meaningful gestures are exchanged. It looks like the farm workers are trying to figure out who he because he looks so different.

This is then juxtaposed against fancily dressed party goers attending an event out on the lawn of a large home. These people invite Dr. Shirley to play and then serve up fried chicken and corn under the assumption that because he’s Black he must like it. To add insult to injury, he is thought to be beneath the basic courtesy of using a bathroom in the host’s home. Instead, he is directed to a raggedy outhouse.

By watching Frank bear witness to Dr. Shirley’s experiences, we’re slowly exposed to the experience of living in segregation. The everyday things that he would take for granted but wouldn’t be able to do as a Black person.

During a conversation between Dr. Shirley and Frank, Frank states that he’s basically Black and understands the Black experience because of where he’s from and having grown up poor. But, there’s a line in the movie that sums up the fallacy of this idea, “They didn’t have a choice to be inside or out. You did.”

Frank can observe but will never truly understand the Black experience because his experiences are by choice. That gives him the option to walk away at any time, which means he can never fully share Dr. Shirley’s experience as he’s just an external observer.

Dr. Shirley explains that he is patronized by his White audiences because it makes them feel “cultured”. Yet, they don’t value, respect, or accept him as a person. He’s also not the stereotypical Black person so he feels disconnected from Black people as well. Add to the complexity that Dr. Shirley is a homosexual (or at least bisexual) which he thinks might make some consider him unmasculine. So, who is he and who will accept him for himself?

I could only imagine entering these fancy establishments but then being relegated to a small corner somewhere. Playing while people eat in a place where you can’t eat. Getting ready for a show in a fancy dining room backstage in what appears to be a broom closet.

Towards the end of the movie Dr. Shirley plays a venue where both his talents and him as a person seem to be accepted and appreciated. It begs the question of segregation versus integration. Do you limit yourself to places that welcome you and treat you with dignity and respect? Or do you take a stand and fight for the right to be every and anywhere?

For Dr. Shirley, finding his place in the world is not just a matter of being accepted as a human being. But rather that he has been exposed to classical music and high society and wants to be accepted within those ranks. Because of the way he views himself and the experiences he’s had, it’s reasonable to expect that his place would be amongst the other members of high society. And in being rejected from that social group it’s also a rejection of him as a person. It’s like saying, “This is his high as you should seek to climb and you should hope to go no further.”

The intended audience for most films like this are White adults, at least within America. Regardless of the overall story, movie studios have a tendency to create films that feature White characters prominently. The historical argument has been that this is done to ensure that their intended audiences are interested in the movie and can identify with the characters.

Yet, the success of movies such as Black Panther, Get Out, Us, etc. has shown that films can be successful at the box office with casts that primarily consist of or prominently feature Black characters. With good marketing and a decent storyline, movies can be successful even when they tell stories from a Black perspective. People will go see movies that look interesting and/or have positive buzz.

Continuing to make films about the lives of Black people that feature one-dimensional Black characters or a predominately White perspective should be passé at this point. Audiences being unwilling to see stories from diverse perspectives is no longer a valid explanation but rather an outdated excuse for being too lazy to create interesting characters and fresh perspectives.

By making the film about Dr. Shirley’s experiences through the eyes of Frank’s education on racism, the film misses Dr. Shirley’s experiences with racism. Frank becomes a typical White savior character rushing in to rescue Dr. Shirley or defend his interests. Frank realizes the errors of his ways and grows as a person which is commendable. But, it’s done at the expense of Dr. Shirley being a more fleshed out character. By the end of the film, Dr. Shirley is basically Frank’s one Black friend that has been in his home and is now a testament to him no longer being racist.

The movie makes it easy to identify with Frank’s oafishness. And his racism is dismissed as merely ignorance, lack of exposure, and maybe even a sign of the times. This as opposed to the blatantly racist actions and attitudes that Dr. Shirley encounters in the South. It castigates the more blatantly aggressive discrimination of the South while downplaying the relatively low key racist attitudes of the North. It’s like Frank is racist he’s not “southern racist”.

To be fair, I don’t think Green Book is a bad movie. It’s actually pretty good. A lot of movies are terrible because the storylines make no sense and the characters are stale. That’s not the case here. But, given a richly complex character like Dr. Shirley, a controversial time period, and a wealth of source material this film should have been even better. The concept had the potential to be an amazing movie and a classic in the making but it fell short because the film’s creators didn’t do enough or take it far enough.

I still recommend that you see Green Book and form your own conclusions. It’s not a perfect movie but could serve as a good basic introduction to the Green Book. I also think the movie’s themes and some of the controversy that surrounded its release could lead to some interesting conversations.

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