Book and Movie Reviews

Green Book (2019)

dir. Peter Farrelly

March 15, 2019.Beth.1 Like.0 Comments
I really enjoyed this movie. I’ve read some reviews though that didn’t due to cultural and racial reasons, so I should add the disclaimer that I am a white Australian, and the events and issues portrayed in the movie have limited impact on me. I watched this as entertainment, not as someone with a connection to it, so my review will reflect that.

This review contains spoilers

The movie is set in 1962, covering two months of Dr Don Shirley’s life while he is on his concert tour. Tony Lip, an Italian-American man from the Bronx is hired to drive and protect him, as Dr Shirley is an African-American man going into the Deep South. The two men are incredibly different, both personally and culturally, and while they clash at first soon a deeper understanding of the other grows.

I really enjoyed this movie. I liked the two main actors, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson and I thought they played their roles extremely believably. The themes of racism and power were tackled adeptly and there were some moments in it that were very meaningful. One example of this was when Dr Shirley says that if Tony doesn’t want to improve his manners he would have to stay outside. Then later, when he sees Tony gambling with the African American drivers, he states how those men were not given the choice to be inside. Another was when Dr Shirley needed to call Robert F Kennedy to get the men out of jail, and the shame and anger he felt at having to do so.

My favourite moments though were the scenes in the Orange Bird where Dr Shirley took the glass of Brandy off the upright piano. The contrast of the location with his tuxedo and the reference back to the earlier conversation he and Tony had felt like a little window into who he was at his heart. The melding of his worlds along with his love of music made for such a lovely scene.

The title of the movie is a reference to The Negro Motorist Green Book written by Victor Hugo Green. The book was published at a time of widespread racial segregation as a guidebook for African American travellers to find accommodation and restaurants who would accept them.

The movie is co-written by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, based on interviews with his father and Shirley, and the letters Tony wrote his wife during the time. This means that although the movie is about the two men, the focus seems to be on Tony. His character is detailed with a thorough backstory and clear motives, to the point that at the beginning Tony steals a gangster’s hat, only to return and gain the man’s favour. However, this seems unnecessary as it never comes up again. All it achieves is making Dr Shirley’s entrance later in the film, which is an odd choice for a film that is supposedly about the friendship between the two men. It seems here more like Nick wanting to include an entertaining anecdote about his father rather than give the two men equal screen time.

It also adds to the mystery around Dr Shirley, again, something that seems unnecessary. The way he is first introduced wearing traditional robes and sitting on a throne-like chair amongst his strange and interesting belongings did a wonderful job of immediately showing the differences between the two men. In that room, Tony was the one who stood out in his rumpled suit and poor manners, with Dr Shirley shown as the man to aspire to. My problem though, was that Dr Shirley seemed to remain separate the rest of the movie.

While maybe this choice was intentional, to show the intense other-ness of him within the racially segregated South, it also succeeded in separating his character from the viewer. We know Tony intimately, his family and home are thoroughly explored, his ideals and values are shown throughout. We are taken on a journey of his changing attitude, watching a man grow in understanding and empathy. Of Dr Shirley we see his ethics, his politeness and his skill at the piano. His home is only shown at the beginning and end of the movie, his family is mentioned only briefly. Even when he was arrested at a YMCA pool, the event is framed by how Tony sees it, and Dr Shirley’s fear of Tony’s reaction.

This is why Mahershala Ali was the stand out performance in this movie. His portrayal of Dr Don Shirley was wonderful and emotional and his micro expressions were incredible. His face told the story when his words didn’t, and the pain, anger and disappointment he felt was vivid and real. I loved the way he moved throughout the movie, showing the tension and control he felt which was juxtaposed with the looseness when he was intoxicated and angry.

The music was a parallel to this as well. It punctuated the events of the film, emphasising his sadness, rage and joy. The way he played, and the pieces he chose gave so much meaning to the scenes, and added such a rich context to his character. In this way, the music became more than just the soundtrack, instead becoming a character in the story. He chose music over his family but his love for it is more than just a profession, it is a tangible thing to him, evidenced in the scenes from being on stage to the upright piano at the Orange Bird, a blues club.

I really liked this movie. I can see how it can be viewed as just another basic movie about racism in the sixties, but I think it did a good job of what it delivered. I wish Dr Shirley’s character had received more development, but Mahershala Ali was incredible and the music was used perfectly.

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