If you don’t think you can stomach another onscreen portrayal of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, I beseech you to make an exception for Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. It’s a true story based on the unlikely friendship between two men — one Black and one white — traveling through the Deep South in the 1960s. Despite the intense portrayals of Segregation, Green Book still achieves perfectly-timed tenderness and humor thanks to the chemistry of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. However, the most compelling element of this film is the pure, unfiltered opulence radiating from Ali as he plays classical pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley.
Dr. Shirley is going on a U.S. tour, and needs a chauffeur with thick skin, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in order to ensure that he makes it to all of his gigs on time. Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen), an Italian-American Bronx native who's made a name for himself as a no-nonsense bouncer at mafia hotspot, gets the job. As the pair travel from New York to the Midwest and through the South, Tony must overcome his own racism while Dr. Shirley grapples with his own loneliness and Tony’s uncouth rowdiness. Green Book is titled after the The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook published during the Jim Crow to Civil Rights eras for Black travelers. It named services and establishments that were safe for them patronize during a time of legalized discrimination. Dr. Shirley and Tony had to rely on the guide for the duration of their trip, and it often left Dr. Shirley in lodging quarters that were way beneath his station.
You see, Jamaican-born Dr. Shirley was not like most other Black people in America at the time. He was whisked away to Russia to study under musical masters at the age of 9. Despite putting down roots in New York, he spent most of his life traveling around the world, learning different languages, mastering his craft, and amassing a reputation for himself as a treasured musical artists. On the screen, Dr. Shirley is the epitome of worldly, living above Carnegie Hall, surrounded by mementos — including an actual elephant tusk — from all over the globe. He has his own butler. His suits are expensive, and his posture is immaculate. When he interviews Tony for the job, he looks down on him from an actual throne in his apartment, draped in a gold-accent caftan. He is bad. He is bougie. He is basically the prototype for the kind of auntie I aspire to be. And aesthetically, there was no better person to play this role than Oscar winner Ali, who already drips with style and elegance no matter what he does.
Early critiques of Green Book in the Twittersphere weren’t sold on its overly simplistic solutions to prejudice. At the beginning of the film, Tony tries to discard two glasses used by Black plumbers, and his in-laws chide him for leaving his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini) alone with the workers. Delores herself is a dutiful wife but alone in her progressive acceptance of Black people. Green Book culminates in a Christmas dinner scene where Tony’s entire family embraces him with open arms. Unfortunately, racist ideologies are not instantly erased from a family when one of its members goes on an extended work trip with a Black man. And white women are not the moral gatekeepers and allies between white men and everyone else, despite how characters like Delores are often depicted.
The realities of race are always more complicated than that. And in Green Book, these complexities are most clearly written on Dr. Shirley’s body. His refinement — from the way he speaks to the way he eats — often surpasses that of the people around him, white and otherwise. He earns the admiration of some of the wealthiest, most influential people in the country. However, this does not prevent him from being denied access to restaurants, hotels, and even whole towns based on the color of his skin. Respectability works sometimes, but it will not save us.
Dr. Shirley’s experiences have also isolated him for other Black people and Black culture. Music by the Supremes and other Motown artists are unfamiliar to him. He has no relationship with his family, including his ex-wife. He is reclusive and lonely, finding comfort in alcohol and casual, secret trysts with men (yes, his sexuality is complicated, too). Unhappy and stuck in a cultural purgatory, Dr. Shirley manages to trip up the conventions of race, but he does not defeat them. Dr. Shirley's not exactly a winner living out loud in Green Book, but I’ll be damned if Ali didn’t make him look good. And you deserve to see it.