Green Book, from Peter Farrelly, is the story of two men who help one another see the best parts of themselves against the deeply rooted fears of the Deep South. Featuring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Green Book is now in theaters.
Winston Churchill once said that “history is written by the victors,” as a way of telling his troops and the people of Great Britain that they would be victorious through overwhelming odds. The cheering commentary from one of our greatest war strategists has since been proven to be biased. That’s what history is: biased. Biased because those who survived tell their stories from their unique vantage points.
Take for instance, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, an autiobiographical story of the unique friendship between Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen and classical pianist, Donald Shirley played by the Academy Award winning Mahershala Ali. This is the story of a bouncer in a New York nightclub who is hired by Shirley to be his chauffer as he tours the Deep South.
This story sounds like it should be pretty straight forward, right?
In actuality, it is anything but. The film’s title is based on The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for African-American travelers. Dr. Shirley is a well educated man, someone of principal and means. He is well respected as a classical pianist. “Tony Lip,” on the other hand is a tough guy, but he’s got a moral compass, something that keeps him above ground in a world that runs on respect.
Dr. Shirley is well-to-do and has his habits, something that “Tony Lips” is reminded of on the road trip. Repeatedly. You get the sense that as cloistered a man as Dr. Shirley is, that he wants something more than just the music. As we discover, he is trapped between the worlds: the white people who control their fears, which they don’t understand with slurs and slander and the black communities, who are given the appearance of people who like to party; a way of espousing their freedom.
“Tony Lips” is also stuck between worlds: that of his family and that of his heritage. In fact, on one of their stops, he runs in to friends of his asking why he’s chauffeuring Dr. Shirley around when he could be making a lot of money. This is one of the areas where Mortensen’s performance is so strong: we see the character defend his position with conviction while at the same time, the actor is giving us his convictions.
Dr. Shirley doesn’t stray too far away from trouble either. In fact, his character is essentially about unwinding his structured lifestyle, about experiencing something other than just the music that he plays for the benefit of those who don’t like him, or are taught to not care for him.
Some have said that the timing of this film is too late; that it would have been a better story years ago. To that, I would say that 2018 has been a year full of amazing stories that predominantly speak to the African-American experience.
The story is nothing without Mortensen and Ali. They are the heart of Farrelly’s film; that these two men, who come from completely different worlds are able to help each other see the better side of, not only their own worlds but their own worlds as well. There’s a running gag in which “Tony Lip” writes letters to his wife and his use of the English language isn’t as eloquent as Dr. Shirley’s.
It is through each man’s bias that they are able to write their own histories.
And that’s a beautiful thing to share in 2018.
Now in theaters, Green Book is rated PG-13.