“Green Book” already has won several major film awards, including three Golden Globes and a Critics’ Choice Award, and earned five Academy Award nominations. There’s a good reason for this. It’s a feel-good movie that opens the door to conversation about racial prejudice and truly is entertaining and heartwarming.
Writer/director Peter Farrelly, known for classic comedies such as “Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber,” couldn’t have created anything less similar to his previous films. He does, however, maintain a sense of humor throughout this touching, dramatic, road trip buddy film starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali that will make you laugh … and cry.
The story takes place in the 1960s at a time when segregation still was very evident and even more racially divided in the Southern states. Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Mortensen), an Italian-American in New York City, making a living as a bouncer and all-around tough guy, finds himself working as a driver for the famed classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley, who is going on tour through the deep South.
The preconceived prejudices on both their parts is whittled away as they grow and learn from one another in this literal and metaphorical journey.
Tony is the epitome of a well-connected tough guy living in an insular world where braun beats brains. His understanding of the world outside of his neighborhood creates the humor throughout the film as he discovers people and cultures previously unknown.
Dr. Shirley (Ali) is everything Tony doesn’t think he should be, and he has no edit mode about it. His childlike honesty is somehow charming, and Shirley’s reaction to it is almost fatherlike in his compassion for Tony’s ignorance.
The film is all about breaking down the walls of ignorance to see people for who they really are. This is Tony’s story, as a character study of a white man during this particular time in history. Shirley’s story is responsible for Tony’s character growth, and, together, they provide a message of love and newfound insight into humanity and sympathy.
Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, is one of three writers of the film. While there is some backlash regarding the writer’s public persona, together with Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly, they create a heartwarming, albeit predictable, story. As you would expect from this story, it’s filled with racial bigotry and Tony’s attempts to wrestle with his own prejudices while protecting Shirley.
It’s his job, but the concept of true friendship begins to develop as Tony witnesses others prejudices, particularly as they travel into hostile territory, and Shirley is punished just for being black. We are introduced to the actual Green Book and the Jim Crow laws that varied from state to state and even town to town. The writers do, however, find balance in bringing levity to the story when it’s needed, usually by using Tony’s ignorance as a comedic tool.
But there’s always a sincere sweetness to that humor, particularly as Shirley attempts to coach Tony to speak more clearly or to write more articulate letters to his wife. As I recall the final scene with Shirley and Delores (Linda Cardellini), Tony’s wife, it still makes me laugh and tear up.
Mortensen not only physically becomes Tony Lip, he morphs into this character with his speech, mannerisms and overall body language. He also has a charm about himself that counteracts his ignorance as we watch this character become more open. It’s an awakening of the heart and mind, and Mortensen skillfully peels away the layers at just the right times to connect us with this man.
Ali is extraordinary in this role as the famed pianist. He portrays the refined, educated and initially intolerant musician who has set a goal to prove a point in the deep South. Ali’s ability to depict this real-life, brilliantly gifted man who also is intolerant and prejudiced in his own way, but then opens his heart to find the good, is exquisitely executed. Together, Ali and Mortensen have a genuine chemistry that we see grow throughout the film, allowing us to believe their friendship and their transformations.
The music is as much of a character of this film as Tony and Shirley are. Classic hits of the time keep the mood upbeat, Shirley’s music is re-created thanks to the talents of Ali, and you just might become a classical music fan — or at least have a deeper appreciation of this type of music — after seeing the film.
Keeping with the time period, the production and set design transport you back to this era re-creating a 1960s New York City, complete with the cars, buildings, clothing and landscape. It’s this attention to detail that allows you to be thoroughly immersed in the film, riding along with these men and experiencing the unequal experiences and fighting for what’s right.
“Green Book” is a film that brings us back to a time when there was a guidebook for black people who are traveling in the South. While the film may not be historically accurate in every way, it is a great story told beautifully, awakening you and perhaps even opening the door to conversations about equality.
With great performances and a soundtrack that revs your soul, it’s a film well worth your time and money.
A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.