I suspected before entering the cinema to see the Green Book that I might enjoy it immensely. The trailer really ticked off the right boxes for many things I enjoy in a film; based on a true story, set in a different time period, great actors, some comedy and addressing a serious theme – in this case racism. What I didn’t expect was to walk out of the cinema feeling so elated at having experienced one of the best films I’ve seen in awhile.
Directed by Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal) Green Book follows an out of work American-Italian bouncer, Tony Lip (Vigo Mortensen), who accepts a two-month job driving and looking after the safety of African-American Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he embarks on a musical tour through the deep south in the 1960s. Shirley is a brilliant, refined, rich pianist with multiple university qualifications while Lip is unrefined, abrasiveness, prone to violence and far less educated. Yet they both manage to impart something on each other and grow as human beings as they face the hurdles of racism together.
With this setup one can already imagine the types of conflicts that are going to occur on such a journey. However, this film wisely never makes these conflicts of racism and identity the main attraction but rather the backdrop that helps forge a surprising friendship between two very different people. What makes this film so wonderful is that it never hammers the issue of racism over the heads of audiences, instead focusing on a relationship built around uncomfortable situations in a very uncomfortable era.
For those unaware, the The Negro Motorist Green Book, i.e. the “Green Book”, was a real thing. Published between 1936 to 1966 it served as a guide to help African-American travelers lodge safely in the Jim Crow southern United States, where racial discrimination was openly accepted and often legally enforced. Shirley’s music label provide Lip with a copy of the book just before they leave to help him plan a safe journey. But as the two travel from city to city and concert to concert, the book cannot save the two from encounters with law enforcement, the general public, even the establishments Shirley performs at. Nor can it protect them from themselves.
We learn early in the story that Lip is, in fact, a racist in a scene where his wife provides two African-American workers with drinking glasses from their kitchen. He doesn’t make a scene of it, but when nobody is looking he throws out the glasses. Despite this, he’s still an honorable man so even when offered more money during their trip to leave Shirley – and he needs the money – he stays with the brilliant musician to finish the contract. And by staying with the pianist he learns of the struggles Shirley must live with everyday when he can’t walk into a store to buy a suit or is not allowed to use the inside toilet at a venue where he is the honored guest.
Despite the serious backdrop of persistent racism and clash of personalities between these two men the film brilliantly balances drama and comedy. In fact, many interactions between Lip and Shirley are hilarious as they butt heads in the traditional Odd Couple-style on many topics and learn to accept (or live) with each other’s differences during their journey. Simply watching Lip’s eating habit or seeing Shirley try to engage in a conversation about music with him will have the audience chuckling or outright laughing out loud.
Green Book is a thought-provoking film, one in which the serious reality of racism and themes of family, materialism, class and sexuality mix in a perfect blend of humor and seriousness that helps take the sting from an otherwise true story – though never entirely. Both Mortensen and Ali give brilliant, compelling performances that will surely net them plenty of richly deserved awards and accolades when the time comes for that. I highly recommend this film.