“Green Book”, based on a true journey taken by a brilliant African-American pianist, Don Shirley, and a Bronx bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, in 1962, stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. It smacks of all the opposites attract, odd couple, buddy trip themes ever created, yet it delivers a glance into culture, history and psychology that is refreshingly instructive.
Before the story unfolds too far, the title “Green Book” surfaces. This book, developed by a New York City postal worker in the 1930s, served as a guide for African-American travelers from the 1930s through the mid 1960s. Its purpose, to identify hotels, restaurants and gas stations that were for “colored only.” Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by Mortensen), temporarily out of work, agrees to drive the pianist, Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) to his concert appointments.
As the trip progresses, each unlike character shares about his own background and begins to learn about the other’s background. Stereotypes surface mile by mile, but they also breakdown. Humor emerges through a variety of misunderstandings along with some serious new insights about each character’s behavior.
When Tony “Lip” discovers the pianist has some interests that were not often discussed in the sixties, the Bronx bouncer, who sometimes appears to be a candidate for the Tony Soprano gang, shows some humanity as he quips, “It’s a complicated world.” Tony has seen many things as a bouncer at the Copacabana, things that have made him tolerant of a variety of people’s choices.
Ali and Mortensen deliver strong performances. Each remains in character while presenting figures that undergo changes through this travel experience. Neither betrays the essential person that he plays. The relationship grows realistically while eluding melodramatic hazards.
Can we look for Oscar nominations for “Green Book”? The American Film Institute has recognized it as one of the top 10 films. It won The People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and it has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture.
Finally, the ending may make this a seasonal choice for many years. “Green Book” is currently playing at the Rialto in Sebastopol and the Summerfield in Santa Rosa. Great story, fun characters and a dark ride into the segregated South make this a must-see film.