Arts & Culture

Reel to Reel: Green Book

The concept of the movie “Green Book” seemed, at least to me, a bit of a mind-numbing premise but I decided to give it a try and I am glad I did. It is a fictionalized account of the interaction of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Donald Walbridge Shirley. In the movie, despite some early friction with their differing personalities, the two became good friends. However, Maurice Shirley, Don’s brother, said, “My brother never considered Tony to be his “friend”.” He was considered by Don to be an employee, his bodyguard, his chauffeur.

The Green Book was published for more than 30 years and is from a period when Blacks who traveled often would put themselves in peril while traveling in the Deep South. Blacks were denied service in many restaurants, hotels and even had to use different drinking fountains. They even faced being jailed or killed in so called “sundown” towns, where they were told they weren’t welcome after sundown.

In answer to policies like these, a postal employee named Victor Hugo Green wrote a guide that was designed to, in his words “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” The Green Book finally ceased publication in the late 60s.

Racism made the Green Book a necessary travel companion for people of color.  The movie “Green Book,” is mix of buddy movie and road trip combined with social history. It mixes the reality of the times with Hollywood sentimentality that feels both relaxed and cautiously blended.

It’s the true story of, a bouncer from the Bronx, who was making his living at a New York nightclub in 1962 and was trying to get out of working as hired muscle for the local mob. He loses his job and puts his amazing appetite to use in a hot dog-eating contest to make ends meet (pun intended). Eventually, he answers a call from a Manhattan pianist who was looking for a driver for a tour he had booked. He shows up for his interview, ready to take almost anything that pays a salary.

He finds a Black man named Don Shirley, an accomplished musician and composer who conducts the interview from what appears to be an ancient Egyptian throne. Shirley, the darling of Park Avenue and other wealthy areas, had booked some dates for a tour that is supposed to end around Christmas. His classically infused jazz is very popular with white audiences but he doesn’t want to take any chances traveling for his concerts through the Deep South. He hires Tony to act as both a chauffeur and bodyguard in case he has any problems.

The journey progresses very much as you might expect. The unkempt, tough talking Tony and the quiet, perfectly mannered Dr. Shirley begin to bicker about everything from the music Tony listens on the car radio to the brand of cigarettes he smokes in between his nonstop babbling. But “Green Book,” turns out to be much more than “Driving Miss Daisy” meets “The Odd Couple.” As might you might expect, Dr. Shirley and Tony meet their share of danger in “Green Book.”

Even though at first the uncouth Tony does not understand Dr. Shirley’s brilliance as a pianist or his cultured opinion of etiquette. He recognizes the two-facedness of celebrating Dr. Shirley’s talent one minute and then relegating him to a “Negroes Only” bathroom the next. But Dr. Shirley isn’t comfortable with the black servers, bartenders and domestic staff that he meets either.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that both Tony and Dr. Shirley undergo a powerful transformation in the movie. “Green Book,” starts out with Tony throwing away two water glasses that were used by black workmen hired by his wife, Dolores and ends up with Tony and Dr. Shirley liking each other.

“Green Book” is a remarkably enjoyable movie, both visually and to listen to, photographed in rich color and filed with gorgeous music. The result of all this is that “Green Book” hits all the numbers, and is the kind of pleasurable middle-of-the-road movie that is well worth a look-see. However, Maurice Shirley, Don’s brother, said, “My brother never considered Tony to be his “friend”.” He was considered by Don to be an employee, his bodyguard, his chauffeur. Watching this romanticized movie is time well spent and may just open your eyes to a historical time.

There was a time when a movie like “Green Book” might have been about a racist who had a heart of gold who is actually saved by an African American. However no one is in fact saved in this movie however they do both gain respect toward each other. The success of “Green Book” lies in its unpretentiousness, and the way it identifies the change that happened in a couple of human beings.

The movie is rated PG13 due to mature thematic elements, strong language, racial name calling, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. 130 minutes.

I give it 8 out of 10 popcorns, well worth the price of admission.

Norb is a writer from Lockport. You can follow his blog at WhyWny.home.blog.

About the author

Artvoice

News and art, national and local. Began as alternative weekly in 1990 in Buffalo, NY. Publishing content online since 1996.

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