From Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to The Help, many films have examined race relations in the 1960’s. Some like Malcolm X have considered a specific character or moment in history. Others like To Sir, With Love, allowed the tumultuous times to exist in the backdrop of their stories, becoming a time capsule of America’s shameful past and wicked present. Despite the plethora of work on the subject, there has never been a film quite like Green Book.
Based on the real-life friendship of an acclaimed Black classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and an Italian-American club bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), Green Book chronicles the eight weeks Tony was employed as Dr. Shirley’s driver and bodyguard as he embarked on a dangerous concert tour that led the men into the Deep South in the winter of 1962.
Green Book could have easily been yet another generic Civil Rights film or a poor reincarnation of 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. Luckily, it was much more than that. With stellar performances from Ali — who carried both an air of class along with the burdens of being an eccentric Black man in the ‘60s in his portrayal — and Mortensen who put on the weight of Tony (a man who adored food), a New York accent and often crass attitude of Bronx natives are what makes Green Book a top-tier film.
Punchy and uproariously funny at times, director Peter Farrelly built off of Nick Vallelonga’s (Tony Lip’s son) screenplay to go well beyond presenting the overt racism that plagued the time. Instead, he asked his actors and the audience to dig deeper. In a class of his own, Ali’s Dr. Shirley is soft-spoken and to himself, but unyielding and stern. A lonely man who lives above Carnegie Hall, Shirley obviously doesn’t fit into the white man’s world, despite his immense talent. Though he plays for them and they enjoy his music, dining with white folks or even staying in the same hotels where he gives his concerts are out of the question. In that same vein, the Jamaican-born jazz pianist and composer also has a hard time engaging with the “Black world.” So deeply immersed in his music, the electric vocals of Aretha Franklin and the wonders of soul food are lost on him. In one scene, in particular, Dr. Shirley and Tony have car trouble, they stop alongside a field of sharecroppers who stare in shock at the turquoise Cadillac, the white man looking under the hood, and the car’s elegantly Black passenger.
Tony is no filler character himself. Working class and often ignorant-minded, the film spends a great time establishing his world—from his friends and neighborhood to his more open-minded wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini). As the men come to know one another, Dr. Shirley demands more of Tony both in his character and the way in which he presents himself. From Dr. Shirley’s perspective, it’s not simply because Tony is capable of doing better, it’s also because his skin-color has allowed him that privilege.
The one letdown in Green Book was the film’s failure to really dive into the importance of The Negro Motorist Green Book. First published in 1938 by a Black postal employee named Victor Hugo Green, the book was a literal lifesaver for Black people who were traveling in the Deep South. Not only did it point to places where Black folks eat and lodge, but it also helped them avoid sundown towns, lynchings and instances of police brutality. A tool of safety in the Jim Crow South, the book is mentioned in the film, but some more in-depth background and conversations would have been worthwhile.
Nevertheless, Ali and Mortensen ground the audience in the narrative and their characters blossoming friendship. With the quippy dialogue and stunning cinematography from Sean Porter, Green Book is a charming and shockingly uplifting feat not just about race and friendship, but also about the intense work many Black people did and still do to merely exist in a world that continues to deny their legitimacy.
Green Book premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 11, 2018. The film will debut in theaters on Nov. 21, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.