By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Being a native Atlantan, I grew up in the last gasp of the despicable Jim Crow South. However, there were things I learned from the remarkable movie, “Green Book,” that I never knew.
- Nat King Cole was physically assaulted while playing Birmingham in 1956. Assaulted while he was on-stage.
- In the Bronx (in the early ‘60s, at least), “eggplant” and “sacks of coal” were slurs used by some Italian-Americans to describe African-Americans.
- “The Green Book, A Guide for Negroes Traveling South,” was published until 1966. Racism was that entrenched.
- A “Sundown Town” was code for something unbearably ugly and racist. And such places existed, again, at least into the early ‘60s.
What I learned most of all, in movies terms, is: put together two amazing actors and they can pull off even the most embarrassing potential clichés.
“Green Book” is a road movie based on a true story. In 1962, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer for the Copacabana, was temporarily out of work while the club underwent renovations. He was hired as a driver/bodyguard by a black concert pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who was touring the country, including the Deep South.
Shirley anticipated trouble — and he was right. However, he was willing to play by the rules (to a point). Hence the Green Book handed to Tony by Shirley’s record company. “For Location Without Aggravation” reads the subtitle.
“Aggravation” is putting it mildly. The encounters are sadly predictable — the bullying Southern cops in Mississippi, the fleabag “For Coloreds Only” motel in Louisville, the country club in Birmingham where Shirley is welcome to entertain but not to eat in the dining room with the members.
Interestingly, “Green Room” indulges in other ethnic, um, observations. Tony’s Bronx pals are exaggerated goombahs of the dese, dem and dose variety. When asked if he’s a cop, Tony bristles, what, does he look Irish? And the extremely cultured Shirley is not above suggesting to his new chauffeur that, “however charming your accent must be in the Tristate area,” he could use a few lessons in diction.
Initially, the film seems doomed to be an annoying “Driving Miss Daisy” spin on “The Odd Couple.” But the stars are far too good for that, as are the script and Peter Farrelly’s — yes, of “Dumb and Dumber” among others — direction.
It’s hard to explain how the picture works its magic, but a lot of it has to do with chemistry and commitment. Ali, who won an Oscar for “Moonlight” and was equally impressive in “Hidden Figures” that same year, creates yet another unique character, totally unlike what we’ve seen him do before. His Shirley is a bit of a snob, a bit of a loner, but we also see the circumstances that have driven him to be who he is, with his cultured pretensions and evening bottle of Cutty Sark.
Meanwhile, Mortensen has chunked up so much even his famous dimple has disappeared into one of his chins. He has a delicious time hamming it up as Tony, yet he never quite overplays his hand. He somehow manages to show us the kindness and street-smart wisdom beneath the posturing.
One of Shirley’s on-going resentments is that, because of his color, he’s not encouraged to play the classical music in which he was trained. Rather, he’s mostly confined to pop tunes, which, in the early ‘60s, were still often borrowed from Broadway. Among his standard repertoire is “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific” which includes the lyric, “You gotta have a dream/If you don’t have a dream/How you gonna have a dream come true?”
It’s hard not to think of another “uppity” black man who had a dream and whose life was tragically cut short in Memphis only a few years later.
“Green Book” is, unexpectedly, one of the best — if not the best — movies of the year. Go see for yourself.