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.
This highly inventive film, “Moonlight”, chronicles the life of a young African American man from childhood to adolescence to adulthood (with three different actors) in the inner city of Miami. In three acts we see this coming-of-age story of a young boy who has to face poverty, and a drug-addicted mother (played by the Academy Award-nominated actress Naomie Harris). In the first act we see bullying from other boys at school. Then we see him in the second act struggle to find his place in the world discovering his sexual identity as well as understanding his identity as black.
In the last act we see the outcome of an adult who is still fighting his demons and searching for answers. Each act focuses on our central character’s relationship with either his supportive mentor or his best friend.
The story we see in “Moonlight” is revolutionary in the way the two young black boys come to an understanding of what survival in a bullying environment will demand of each of them. This could be any child’s challenge in the school yard.
The acting is beyond reproach. Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (“Juan”) and Naomie Harris give flawlessly heartbreaking performances. As a viewer I found Ali so brilliant in such an appealing role that, for me, he’s the highlight of “Moonlight” and the film sags in the middle partly because of his absence. I also thought the boy “Little” was so charming and the performance so raw it was astonishing for such a young actor to achieve.
The writing does not match the excellence of the acting. While there is a portrayal of deep compassion and sympathy for a fellow human being who is doing what we all are — navigating the complexities of doing the best we can in the world we are born into, scenes and dialog were not tight enough and there was a languishing on couches, at the dinner table, in the classroom which did nothing to contribute to the characters’ magic. Yet, there is magic too, in seeing a young boy grow up and accept a different idea of identity and masculinity than is expected.
The lugubrious pacing detracts from the searing and unforgettable plight of the main character. “Moonlight” would have sputtered out of gas in Act Three if it were not for the final scene with Kevin. The dialog is weak, more noticeable because the silence of the characters in key scenes is so powerful. The flow of the film is jagged. I recommend “Moonlight” for its originality and acting, but the writing and pacing, I thought, held it back from being an unquestionable winner.