By Mollie Campbell.
Movie: The Green Book
Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini.
Duration: 130 mins
I just wanted to start by saying that this post isn’t like my other articles, more of a scene by scene analysis due to how important it is. This film fresh, powerful and incredibly influential, everybody needs to watch it.
The story of Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and ‘Dr’ Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) was always going to be a meaningful one, and ‘The Green Book’ accurately tells this poignant and heart-warming tale. Set in 1962, in the Deep South, it opens with evident backwards attitudes towards African-Americans, unfortunately accurate of the time. The opening scenes shows Tony working at Copacabana in New York, the night ends with him beating up a disrespectful customer. The next day he wakes up at home to find his family sitting on his couch, when asking why they were there, they replied with: ‘came here to keep Dolores company’ which we see is due to African-American plumbers hired by Tony’s wife. This immediately gives us an insight into these backwards attitudes, Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) offered the men drinks and after they leave Tony takes the glasses they were drinking from and chucks them in the trash. The wife retrieves them and seems disappointed in his actions, proving that not everybody felt the need to treat African-Americans so harshly during that time. This interaction paints a picture, this was a time in which people of colour were segregated so harshly, these days you wouldn’t dream of not letting someone in a restaurant simply because of the colour of their skin (which is something that happens later on in the movie), but if you think about it, it wasn’t that long ago at all, which is quite terrifying. In the movie, Dr Shirley is called an ‘animal’ by another member of society, which is not only infuriately sickening, but it is also incredibly ironic, as Tony’s New York Italian family are incredibly violent, they are portrayed as being worse people yet African-Americans are the ones who are marginalised from society. There is also a scene in which a St. John’s church calendar is clearly on the wall in the background, Tony’s family and their way of life can be morally wrong yet they are accepted more than African-Americans, most of whom are harmless.
Tony is an interesting character because whilst he puts the glasses in the bin, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with African-Americans face to face. He instantly does his job, to protect Dr Shirley, without apprehension. When people have minds that are easily impressionable it can sometimes lead to them believing into this hateful racist agenda, but in many ways it can also lead to a complete lack of judgement in one’s eyes, accepting everybody for who they are which is very true in Tony’s case…not only does he ultimately not care about the fact that Dr. Shirley is an African-American, he also doesn’t seem shocked in the slightest when he is called to pick Don up after being found naked with another man, he doesn’t feed into the same nasty attitude of the times, instead jumping straight in to protect him. But he does understand the severity of the reaction he will get when travelling down south: ‘You and the deep south? There’s gonna be problems’ Tony tells him.
A strong message within the film is how times have changed, the amount of segregation and the foul things people did to people of colour are just sickening…of course we don’t have this attitude today, well, to that extent at least, and that should be the end of the story, but it isn’t. Whilst the severity of the world being portrayed within the Green Book is very different from the one we live in now, there are still very important racial issues that need to be dealt with, especially within the United States. Many times throughout the movie we can guess what is coming next, an unsettling prediction about how Don is going to be treated, to me this is a representation of humans, we always know what’s coming yet we let it happen anyway…every time, let this be a message. Early on in the movie, before the two main characters set off, the A&R men give Tony the ‘Green Book’, e.g. the list of motels to stay at in the South which are safe. Despite Tony not being nearly as racist as his peers, we still see how he changes throughout the course of the movie, at first he is a bit apprehensive which he mostly conceals, until he leaves Don in the car and immediately comes back to take his wallet with him, believing and therefore feeding into a stereotype. But eventually, he really builds an equal friendship with Don.
After the first stop, there is a sad moment in which Tony watches Dr. Shirley sitting on his hotel balcony watching a group of white people in the courtyard, chatting and laughing. This really sheds a light on how lonely it was to live in a white world, Tony finally opens his eyes to this and sees how lonely he is, which is why he drinks every night. The director does a masterful job of intertwining the severity of the time with light-hearted comedy, the seriousness is never diminished and the humour is never trashy, he finds the perfect balance, all whilst staying true to the story. Tony puts Little Richard on the radio but Don doesn’t know who he is, prompting Tony to say: ‘Come on Doc, these are your people’, he then goes to KFC and presumes that Dr. Shirley loves fried chicken because it is the staple food of ‘his people’. Don replies with ‘I have never had fried chicken in my life’. Despite him then going on to say ‘You have a very narrow assessment of me Tony’ which is an incredibly powerful line, he does accept some of Tony’s chicken and enjoys it, opening his mind up to different ways of life, something the white people of the time seemed to be incapable of, the whole country’s attitude stemmed from the basis of one group of people’s incorrect stereotype. This scene ends up as a very important transition from boss/employee to the foundations of a friendship, they laugh as they chuck their chicken bones out of the window but Shirley makes Tony reverse and pick up his drink carton because he can’t stand littering, again affirming how opposite the two are, despite Tony being a far more abrupt and disrespectful person than Shirley, he is the one who is accepted by society yet the Don isn’t just because he is African-American…it really does make it hard to comprehend how anybody thinks this way.
Another moving moment is when they stop at their motel and Shirley even withdraws himself from a group of African-American people in the courtyard, showing us that he doesn’t feel comfortable in either world. The next moment Tony is called by the other band members to a bar, Shirley is being beaten up by a group of white people, they call him things that I could never repeat in writing, summing up just how incomprehensibly disgusting they are. After Tony finally saves him he says ‘do you know where we are’ to which Shirley responds with ‘does Geography really matter?’…which is seemingly minor but actually incredibly important…why should geography matter? Why should where you live or how you were raised justify such appalling behaviour? A little while later they pull over to the side of the road to fix a problem with the engine, Don notices African-American farmers in a field, there is no dialogue, merely words spoken through the power of eye contact, this moment is so moving and transformative, it doesn’t require an explanation. Later, Tony asks Don’s band mates why he shakes hands with everyone and smiles despite what they think of him and he responds with ‘he asked for this’…Don is trying to prove a point, an attempt at blazing a trail to break a stereotype that never should have been established in the first place. Whilst in Georgia they portray a lot of things that are associated with ‘Black Culture’ but what happens to people like Shirley who don’t feel a apart of anything? And why should there be separate ‘white’ and ‘black’ cultures? Why not a collective culture for all humans? When they are out walking, Tony convinces Don to try on a suit he likes but the shop attendant says ‘You’re not allowed to try that on’ Shirley is furious but he just leaves calmly, the next thing we see is the infuriation manifesting itself as musical passion when he plays the piano onstage that night. Shirley is very realistically defensive about everything, which really stresses the idea that they were raised in a world where being defensive and cautionary was vital for survival because of the way they knew they would be treated, they shouldn’t have had to instil that in their children but they had to because of the kind of society they were up against, nobody notices endless amounts provocation until someone retaliates, which then provides a space for negative stereotypes to erupt, which is incredibly unjust. Shirley is very calm and never retaliates, because he knows better… ‘Dignity always prevails’.
When they are taken into police custody after being pulled over for no reason, he is released because of Bobby Kennedy, this highlights President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, which is sometimes majorly underplayed when remembering that era. Lyndon Johnson may have signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act after JFK died but it was President Kennedy who set it in motion, he provided the foundation for the fight to begin, Shirley says: ‘They are trying to change the country’. This sparks an argument, ultimately leading Shirley to say “So if I’m not *black* enough and if I’m not *white* enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?” His heart-breaking lack of identity is a crucial, gut-wrenching and powerful moment. This was a response to Tony saying: ‘I know exactly who I am’, confirming that ‘White’ people were allowed to be whoever they wanted to be, whether they were morally right or wrong, but a ‘black’ person’s identity was stripped from them, their personality wasn’t considered a factor, simply a stereotype.
When Shirley is not allowed to go into a restaurant to eat with everyone else because he is African-American, he and Tony go to the ‘Orange Bird’ down the street. As soon as Tony walks in it is evident that everybody there is African-American, they all stare at him very overtly, finally giving Tony an idea of what it is like to live in a white-dominated world. The only difference is that when the roles are reversed, they don’t act in the same way, after the initial shock of his presence they treat him normally by talking to him and never getting violent which says a lot about how false these ridiculous stereotypes were and how absurd even the concept of segregation is. Shirley gets up and plays on the old piano and the band join in, they all play the blues and Shirley finally feels a apart of something, he smiles freely, not in the forced way that he usually does on a normal show night, in front of his ‘usual’ crowd.
They finally make their way home, with Don offering to drive the final stretch for Tony to get home to his family on Christmas Eve…he drops him home and goes back to his own house. Suddenly he realises he cannot fill the loneliness in his life with possessions (which are show at the start of the movie), instead he craves the company of others. He turns up at Tony’s door, knowing he would finally find it there. In a very emotionally heightened scene, Tony hugs him instantaneously. There is a poignant moment in which Dolores sees how much Tony’s opinions have changed, she too hugs Don. Tony introduces him to his large, over-extended family, for a split second they stare in shock and then they all laugh and get him a plate of food. It really provides one final message to the audience and that is to open your mind up to other viewpoints, just one kind word of love or acceptance can help change multiple opinions, going further and further through endless dominoes of people, all falling into the next, changing perceptions one step at a time. Keep the fight going, keep the candle burning…never let it fade away, and don’t forget Don Shirley’s quote: ‘It takes courage to change people’s hearts’.