Author: Karuna Savoie
“Green Book” (2018) is a road trip down a bumpy history lane. In this feel-good film directed by Peter Farrelly, an unlikely friendship evolves amid the backdrop of America’s tense race relations in the ’60s.
Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian-American bouncer with a raffish personality. His professional life, which involves breaking up fights at the nightclub, is routine. When the venue temporarily closes, Tony crosses paths with Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a prolific African-American pianist looking for a bodyguard to chauffeur him on his tour through the Deep South. Though reluctant to serve an African-American man, Tony accepts the position. By the end of the tour, having survived racist encounters and other tribulations, the two grow closer as friends.
“Green Book” is supposedly based on a true friendship, but Dr. Donald Shirley’s family has challenged this idea, stirring up controversy. According to one of Shirley’s brothers, Dr. Maurice Shirley, one false premise in the film was that Shirley was out of touch with his “culture” and his family. He said in a statement that “he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact.”
Patricia Shirley, Maurice Shirley’s wife, cites that the “true friendship,” as the relationship is advertised by the film industry, was really an “employer-employee relationship.” For what the movie is, however, “Green Book” is heartwarming despite its inaccuracies.
There is a fair share of cheesiness as Tony and Don warm up to one another. Don and Tony have a showdown with the owner of a whites-only country club and share a meal of fried chicken on the highway. These were more likely the product of director’s choice than reality. On the other hand, the film succeeds in delving into current social issues without having them totally overshadow the story.
Tony declares at one point that he is “blacker” than Dr. Shirley, referring to the income inequality between them. This piece of the script serves just the right amount of audience discomfort as it reflects a facet of racial animosity seen today. The friendship that develops throughout the film is slow. There is no one epiphany that marks the beginning of the “true” friendship. The relationship ebbs and flows—Don finds Tony’s personality as not just amusing, but fascinating, in comparison to his own. The initial clash between these polar-opposite demeanors ultimately reinforces the two main characters’ growth, making for warm, solid humor and showing the characters drive this story more than anything else.
Point-blank, “Green Book” would have been a true-story gem, but it still holds greater resonance. Rather than just depicting an era filled with hardships and social conflict, “Green Book” pays tribute to the change that is created through rare one-on-one interaction. The friendship portrayed between Tony and Don is inspiring, even if it may not have paralleled reality.