Green Book’s Road Trip is Real, Funny and Poignant
Review by Amy Kellestine
Just a little over half a century ago, the “Negro Motorist Green Book” was a vital reference for Black travelers who wanted to navigate the roads of America and find places to fill their gas tanks, eat and sleep without having doors shut in their faces. Now, “Green Book” recaps that time in a comedy-drama that manages to be a refreshing take on the classic road trip movie that fits somewhere on the spectrum between “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”.
Equal parts history lesson, exploration of friendship, commentary on race, bromance and comedy, “Green Book” never detours from the complex realities of 1960s America before the Civil Rights Act, while staying in the fast lane of entertainment value.
In this true story, we first meet Tony Vallelonga (played by a beefed-up Viggo Mortensen, who put on 45 pounds for the role) as an Italian-American bouncer at a high-end New York City nightclub. He’s an enforcer with the mind of a con artist, a ton of street smarts, and a soft spot for his family. When the nightclub closes for renovations, he needs to find another way to make ends meet. Enter Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a Jamaican-American piano virtuoso who wows white crowds with his talents. He has three university degrees, speaks eight languages, and yet is not safe to travel freely in the racially charged south. But Tony has just the right skill set to help him.
It should come as no big surprise that there are lots of laughs in “Green Book” as it was written (in part) and directed by Peter Farrelly, who is one half of the brother-duo that brought us movies like “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary”. The majority of the jokes play off the different backgrounds of Tony and Dr. Shirley. For example, Tony was disappointed that Pittsburgh’s women were the same as they were in New York because the nickname his friends had for the city ,“Tittsburgh”, had set his expectations higher. Usually this type of humour falls flat for me, but there was something so genuine and pure about Tony’s simplistic approach to life, in contrast with Dr. Shirley’s structure and formality.
The countless challenges that Dr. Shirley experiences throughout the film highlight the gross inequities that were a daily reality for black Americans, including not being able to use the indoor washroom at private houses where he performed, being denied service at a menswear store, and getting roughed up at a bar simply for being there and black. In some instances, Tony is able to use his whiteness (and his aggression) to protect Dr. Shirley, but other times even he is unable to reason with “tradition”.
One of the movie’s most dramatic moments occurred during an argument between Tony and Dr. Shirley, where Tony claimed to know more about black culture and admonished Dr. Shirley for not knowing enough about “his people”. The exchange highlighted the trauma caused by labeling and setting expectations based on stereotypes.
However, the movie does more than address the white/black racial divide. There are numerous other plot points that showcase the divisiveness created by religion or country of origin, in addition to race. For example, Tony takes an automatic disliking to the Russian cellist, Oleg, in Dr. Shirley’s trio, since he grew to dislike Russians when he fought in World War II. In another scene, Tony comments that he can’t be a cop because he’s not Irish.
As the characters learn more about each other, their bonds grow stronger, ultimately showing that you can’t dislike someone once you know their story. In a time when we are encouraged to take sides and politicians threaten to build walls, “Green Book” serves as a powerful example of what is possible if we look beyond the stereotypes and choose to connect with the individual instead. As Oleg says, “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” Perhaps we can all be a little bit more courageous.
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.