Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen take us through this true (or mostly true) story about an extremely unlikely friendship.
Classical Pianist “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is set to go on an 8-week concert tour of the Mid-Western and the Southern United States. He hires Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver and bodyguard. Don’s management gives Tony a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book so that he will be able to find motels, restaurants, and gas stations that will allow Don inside.
As the tour starts, the two do not get along very well. Tony dislikes anything refined, or acting like a subordinate to Don, while Don thinks Tony is an uncouth lout. However, as they go on, Don’s talent starts to impress Tony and Tony becomes increasingly disturbed by how everyone treats Don in the South, from managers and venue owners to random white people. Don helps Tony write letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini), with Don’s sophisticated language and talent for creative composition punching up Tony’s less than amazing style. Tony tries to get Don to connect with his family, but Don feels isolated by his lifestyle, both because he’s a classical pianist and also because he’s a homosexual. When Don is caught in a YMCA pool with another (white) man, Tony bribes the officers to release Don. When the two are arrested for Don being black in a town that bars black people after curfew, Don calls his lawyer, revealed to be Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who has them released. These experiences further humiliate Don, but Tony uses them to point out that, by being rich and connected, Tony feels like he’s “blacker” than Don. Don points out how false that statement is, by saying being rich and connected has made him feel disconnected to his black community, being black keeps him disconnected from the white community, and being gay means that pretty much everyone in 1963 hates him. He’s essentially alone in the world.
On one of the last stops of the tour, Don refuses to play at the club because the owner refuses to allow Don to be served inside the very venue that he’s been booked to play. Instead, Don plays at a black club and wows the audience. Heading back North, Tony invites Don to join his family for Christmas Eve Dinner, which Don eventually accepts. Tony’s wife thanks Don for the letters, revealing that she figured out Tony wasn’t writing them alone.
One of the most interesting things about this movie was the response by Don Shirley’s family and the counter-response by Mahershala Ali and the film’s main author Nick Vallelonga. Shirley’s family insisted that Vallelonga and Shirley were never friends and that the point of their relationship was that Shirley had to employ subordinates of a different race in order to deal with racism. Mahershala Ali apologized profusely for not consulting with the family to add nuance. However, Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s real-life son, revealed that the movie was based on a series of interviews he conducted with Shirley and his father, and that Shirley had specifically asked Vallelonga not to consult other people. So, ultimately, the accuracy of this movie now seems somewhat in dispute.
The best part of this film are the two leads, although, I’m not going to lie, I think Mahershala Ali did most of the heavy lifting. I do admit that I might not think as highly of Viggo’s performance because I conflate Tony Lip with all of the characters that Tony Lip portrayed throughout the years (mostly mobsters), but I also just don’t think he made Tony nearly as complex as Ali made Shirley. I acknowledge that might be partially because Shirley was just a more interesting character within the film, although I think Tony actually had the more complete character arc. This isn’t to say that I thought Viggo Mortensen’s performance was bad, in fact it was very good, I just thought Ali delivered a little more.
My biggest problem with this movie is probably that it falls into some of the same traps that most films run into when dealing with race. First, it just has to copy some of the traditional scenes, like a white man being shocked at how a black man is treated, or a black man having to remind a white man that he has an advantage that’s completely unearned. It’s just not new, and it takes a lot to make it interesting. Second, when you’re making a movie and you have a conflict, at the end of the film you like to feel like that conflict is resolved. What do you do, then, when your conflict isn’t really between your two leads, but between your lead and a societal injustice? If you’re The Hunger Games or The Matrix or even Fight Club, you can end your film on a note that hey, these problems are actually going to be solved. But when your injustice is racism, something that is still pervasive to this day, how can you even try to pretend that it’s solved? Well, you have your main characters learn to get past their natural biases and bond and that’s just as good, right? Not really, but it lets us feel like something has been accomplished, so we can walk out feeling like everything’s not hopeless. I’m not saying you should end every movie with a nihilistic point of view saying that nothing ever gets better, but I also think that most films about racism make you feel “oh hey, this is over now” at the end, and we don’t need to do that, either. The movie does make us feel better about the fact that we’ve come a long way, and it should, but it shouldn’t allow us to forget that we still have a ways to go.
I do think that the film does a good job of adding in the elements that were unique to Don Shirley’s story, particularly his disconnect with traditional black culture in the 60s arising from his wealth and connections and his disconnect with almost everyone arising from being a gay man in the 1960s. It’s interesting to be reminded that even a perceived advantage, and wealth is generally always an advantages, can actually serve to limit the number of people you can relate to. The film even reminds us that while Don Shirley worked to combine classical and jazz music, those two styles still remain fairly distinct, even within most of his performances.
Overall, it’s a solid film, even one that is probably worthy of the nomination it’s received (and definitely worthy of the two acting nominations), but I still feel like it just wasted a little bit of its potential by retreading what other films have already done in the past. Definitely worth seeing, though.
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