New York, 1962. Two very different but shared realities are presented to us.
On the one hand Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortesen), is the father of an Italian-American family who was born, grew up, married and always lived in the same neighbourhood of the Bronx in New York. He was earning a minimal amount of money to support his family working as a bouncer in a famous New York night club but suddenly finds himself looking for a job when the club closes for renovations.
In contrast, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Oscar for best supporting actor), is an African-American, accomplished classical pianist, cultured and refined. Faced with racial barriers, he eventually chose to blend his classical training with gospel and pop music. In 1962, despite segregation in the southern USA, he decided to tour there with his trio but first he needs a driver.
These are the two worlds compared: the whole narrative is a journey inside these two worlds of two seemingly different men.
So, two journeys: the physical one, travelling on highways alongside fields and performing in concert halls, and the human one, through the multi-cultures and racial prejudices of America.
In the midst of polo shirts and suits, the luggage that both load into their 1962 turquoise Cadillac Sedan Deville, there is a certain air of dignity: for Don culture, the refinement in the clothes and in his speaking, the composure that goes beyond the piano. This is what his missionary spirit wants to bring to the South, through a series of concerts down to Birmingham, Alabama, where six years earlier the pianist and singer Nat King Cole had been beaten up for daring to play white music. Courage and talent, to change people’s hearts.
For Tony, dignity lies in the family, the solidity of its traditions, the number of people at the dining table on Sunday, knowing how to get away with every situation, the talent to persuade, to complain maybe, but then always do anything for his family, including writing awkward letters to his affectionate wife. In some ways, public relations.
However, there is always some shadow of hypocrisy. Tony, even though he can interact in a limited way with black people, has a strong prejudice against them, as shown at the beginning of the film when he deals with two technicians who came to repair the floor. Tony has a predisposition to take shortcuts to get things done with a little less effort and, if necessary, spend a little more money. (Interesting how recycling was the common aspect of these two facts: first, he throws with disgust in the garbage the two glasses used by the black technicians, then during the trip he launches the big glass of coke from the car window. In both cases there is someone who takes the situation in hand – and the glasses.)
These hypocrisies affect Don. While he is constantly acclaimed with honor on all the stages where he performs for the most cultured and wealthy white Americans, he cannot dine at their restaurants, or go to their church services, by virtue of traditions. “I’m sure you will understand, sir, here it has always been like that“: in other words, racial segregation.
Another point, perhaps marginal from a historical point of view, but essential from the human perspective: the solitude of Don. The splendid apartment above Carnegie Hall, drinking a bottle of liquor every night, not being able to reconcile being a pianist husband, not having the courage to write to his brother who he has not seen for a long time.
With these premises in mind, Tony expresses how he intuitively perceives the immediate future when he says just before leaving to go on tour: “I predict mess“.
Yet, and here is the humor, the film slowly shows us how after an assortment of difficulties, a strong friendship develops that smooths over all these great differences, where one man has something to give to the other. So much in the small things, from Don who helps improve the romantic style of Tony’s letters to his wife, to the latter who makes him participate in his culinary skills, helping him understand that it does not make much sense to be fussy when eating a bucket of chicken. Up to the bigger ones, with Tony who, with his usual dexterity, saves his partner from a couple of incidents when anger begins to go beyond words and Don, who screams his suffering in a moment of tension, makes Tony realize that things in life are not always black and white – literally – as it may seem. And yet Tony knows how to extract a simple big truth: “the world is full of lonely people who are afraid to take the first step. You should write to your brother.“
In short, the movie is a continuous adventure in which the dignity of a person diminishes the hypocrisy of another. A great journey of friendship, with two final tests: Will Don succeed in performing the final concert in bigoted Birmingham? And will Tony arrive back home in time for Christmas dinner with the family?
In Green Book (which was the name of the guide listing all the accommodations and bars where black people were allowed to go in the South), these precious themes run fast with good performances, comic non-trivia, the beautiful color of the Cadillac, the fields of the South, the elegant clothes and especially the popular music of Don’s concert music which blends Chopin and blues.
Green Book is a light but deep comedy that has so much to say about the current times in which we live when, after having taken so many steps to advance civil rights, we continue to risk going backward.
While we are hanging out and humming nice piano riffs, let’s remember that racism is a very serious matter and is always terribly present, that friendship is a good yardstick for our idea of dignity and that when there is some diversity there is probably something to learn.
And guys, let’s learn how to do recycling, please.
Translation: Jhoanna Climacosa