It’s 1962, you are African American and you don’t travel in the US without the Green Book, an unofficial domestic passport (for Jim Crow laws). The Green Book is an indispensable guide for African Americans looking for accommodations while traveling. (Similar guides existed for Jewish and gay travelers.)
Inspired by a true story, we see Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight”), a renowned pianist, about to embark on a concert tour throughout the US. Shirley hires Tony Valleylonga –“the Lip”–(played by Viggo Mortensen of “Lord of the Rings” and “Eastern Promises”), a bouncer from an Italian-American nightclub in the Bronx, as his driver and bodyguard. Despite their differences in education and sophistication, the two men unexpectedly develop a close friendship while confronting racism and danger on the road. Neither of the men expects to face the situations they encounter. Respectful treatment of the two main characters gives Green Book heart and universal appeal.
The facile ending, however, does not do justice to this award-worthy film. The complexity of Don Shirley and Tony Valleylonga is not developed, although attitudes of “cultured wealthy elites” and hostile “country folk” avoid stereotyping.
An intellectual with an implied secret life as a homosexual, Shirley does not feel at home with blacks or whites. His loneliness propels him to emotional desolation. Portraying this part of his life more fully would have made Green Book even stronger.
Nonetheless, Green Book is a worthwhile movie to add to the 2018 list of must-see films. Awareness of this shameful period in which Green Books existed is long overdue. Green Book touches upon the gripping fear that African Americans endure even today, whether driving on a country road down South or walking with a hoodie up North.
Note: Currently at theaters. Watch for Academy nominations for both Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, well-matched as a dueling duo.