Political Film Review #579

Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) was a Jamaican-born American musician whose talents Igor Stravinsky described as “virtuosity is worthy of Gods.” After studying and performing in his youth, he decided to pursue a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts. The film Green Book features a concert tour that starts in Pittsburgh and ends in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Shirley is one of a trio, with the other two both Caucasians. The film is a double biopic, also featuring street-smart Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by Vigo Mortensen), a Copacabana bouncer from an Italian American family in the Bronx eager to earn a buck almost any way he can.

The plot begins when Tony receives a telephone call with a job feeler. He reports for an interview at the extraordinarily elegant residence of Dr. Shirley in an upper floor at Carnegie Hall. During the interview, Dr. Shirley asks Tony many questions and soon realizes that he is the perfect one to drive him from place to place in the South because he can handle racial problems in the manner of a New York punk. The two converse a lot en route, sharing their personalities and proclivities, with evident learning on both sides along the road between the odd couple of dignified if pompous Dr. Shirley and down-to-earth Tony. Dr. Shirley explains that he was trained in classical music but switched to achieve success in New Orleans Jazz. The film has many laughable moments, but the real test comes as they go south, and the narrative soon becomes heartwarming. Tony relies on the Green Book, a tourist guide to the South published from 1936 to 1966 so that African Americans would know where to eat and what lodging is safe. The year is 1962, when desegregation has hardly begun. Encounters with Southern “bad boys” and the police soon demonstrate why Tony was the ideal person to accompany Dr. Shirley. On one occasion, Tony punches a police officer, and both end up in jail. Since Dr. Shirley is behind bars but committed no offense, he asks to telephone a lawyer. Within minutes of his conversation, both are released because the call was made to Bobby Kennedy, whom Dr. Shirley befriended while performing in the White House. On Christmas eve, Dr. Shirley is to perform in Birmingham but cannot eat along with his two music companions, so he refuses to perform, goes down the road, and entertains patrons in a bar populated by African Americans. Afterward, Tony drives toward New York to make home for Christmas but is so tired that Dr. Shirley takes the wheel and drops Tony off at his home. Tony invites Dr. Shirley to meet his family, but the famous musician returns to his residence, and a Christmas with Tony soon becomes more inviting that a Christmas alone in Carnegie Hall.

Credits at the end indicate that the two remained friends for life, which ended for both in 2013. Director Peter Farrelly has opened a window into the segregated South of the past, the extraordinary talents of Dr. Shirley, and the conviviality of life among working class Italian Americans in New York. As a result, the Political Film Society has nominated Green Book for an award as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2018. MH