By Joe Dargan
With a combination of real-life experiences, great storytelling and unbelievable music, “Greenbook” is a joyride worth taking. Greenbook is a true story that confronts the notion of racial inequality with an unlikely friendship between a poor white man and a wealthy black man in 1962.
The movie’s protagonist, Dr. Don Shirley, played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, is a world renowned pianist who’s embarking on a performance tour through the deep south, and is in need of a reliable driver and bodyguard.
A brief search by his record label in New York City, turns up Copacabana club bouncer, Bronx native and racist, Tony Vallelonga, played by oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen.
Though road-trip films can be a little cliche, the electrifying acting of both Ali and Mortenson makes this one well worth the ride.
The journey exposes Shirley, who lives in a penthouse above New York City’s Carnegie Hall and has been successful since he was a teen, to a world of hate that’s driven by race. Vallelonga is charged with protecting a man he would have normally despised. Because of the bond created while traveling together, it goes from being just a job to a personal crusade.
In the first few scenes, the movie does a good job subtly expressing Vallelonga’s racist views without vilifying him. In one scene, his wife gives a couple of black maintenance men glasses of lemonade to drink.
When the guys leave the home, unbeknownst to his wife, Vallelonga throws the glasses in the trash can.
Due to his beliefs, he is reluctant to work for a black man, but because of his financial situation, he’s forced to swallow his pride and take the job.
As they travel, the two men learn things about each other that causes a paradigm shift. Vallelonga is forced to rethink everything he knows about African-Americans, while Shirley, who spends his life in a bubble of prosperity, is humbled by the two’s experiences together.
Ali does a masterful job as Shirley. He is extremely convincing as a pianist, with every keystroke appearing to be authentic. This was partly in-thanks to his practice sessions with the film’s Julliard-trained, Emmy-winning composer Kris Bowers. Some of Bowers credits include “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” which won an Academy Award for Best Short Film, and Netflix’s “Quincy Jones.”
“Because there is a mutual respect and Tony has an admiration for what Dr. Shirley is capable of, it allows these people to listen to one another and eventually develop empathy,” Bowers said at an advanced screening of the film at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Saturday. Ali also spoke about his journey creating this film.
“Working with the studio and trying to get in touch with (Shirley’s) people was challenging because he was a very private man,” Ali said at the screening.
“I had a documentary I started with that he appears in and that’s where I was able to pick up elements of the voice, gestures and his physicality. It’s where I got a sense of his essence. I read everything I could on him, as well as submerging myself in his music,” said Ali.
The title “Green Book,” refers to a travel guide, first printed in 1936, that catered to Black motorists. Created by postman and activist Victor Hugo Green, the tagline of “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guild” was “Now We Can Travel Without embarrassment.”
The book listed hotels, homes, grocery stores and most other conveniences a black traveler would have needed on the road across America. The men use this book to navigate their way through states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky to name a few.
At times, the two weren’t allowed to sleep in the same hotel or dine in the same restaurant. This was during the Jim Crow era, a time when southern states held laws that, not only allowed, but sometimes promoted bigotry and racial injustice.
This movie will make viewers think and laugh while tugging at the audience’s heartstrings. It will be in theaters everywhere on Thanksgiving day.