An unlikely yet enduring friendship by Richard Jones

A look at Green Book (M)

greenbHands up if you knew that a special guidebook known colloquially as the Green Book was written in 1936.

Not because it was written by a man called Victor Green but about its subject matter. Yes, its title in full was The Negro Motorist Green Book and its chapters told readers where the USA’s safe hotels, restaurants and services for African Americans were situated. No, like most of this blog’s readers, I didn’t know firstly that there was such a book so quite obviously had no idea of what its pages contained.

It’s a vital component of the film bound to collect an Academy Award or two next month as a renowned classical and jazz pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) hits the road in the Deep South for two months of concerts in 1962. His driver cum bodyguard Tony Vallelonga – known as Tony Lip in New York where he’d worked as a nightclub bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) – uses the Green Book to find appropriate accommodation and eating places for Don and himself.

Director Peter Farrelly deals out a lot of scenes as our two central characters join in the fight against racism.

Dr Shirley is a gay aesthetic individual. Tony rescues him from a steam bath building where he’s been arrested along with his white male companion. Tony Lip pays the two arresting officers telling them that the banknotes don’t represent a bribe but rather a donation for them to pay for tickets for the next local Policeman’s Ball.

Between dates and on one rainy night in Missouri Don and Tony are pulled over by local highway police and Tony decks the most obnoxious ‘cracker’. It’s back to the local nick for the arrested pair with Dr Shirley allowed one phone call, to his lawyer, from the cell block. It turns out that he has a direct line to the most senior legal eagle in the nation: US Federal Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy. The lowly coppers in the local nick are put on their best behaviour when the State Governor, after a stinging rebuke from Washington, telephones to tell them to immediately release Dr Shirley and his companion.

In another scene where the pianist plays to a packed drawing room in a stately Southern mansion Dr. Shirley is not permitted to enter the downstairs lavatory. When the performer refuses to use the dingy, outside wooden loo Tony Lip has to take him back to their  hotel: a 30-minute drive. It’s on the road where Tony introduces Dr Shirley – who lives in a vast glitzy apartment above Carnegie Hall – to fried chicken. The pianist returns the favour by helping Tony write beautifully-phrased and longing letters back to wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini).

But the most lingering scenes feature the evening dress-attired Shirley and Tony Lip in an Atlanta black jazz club. After leaving the whites-only city nightclub because the pianist is not allowed to eat there, Tony drives his employer to a heaving jazz and rock club. Dr Shirley is invited up to the piano, not a concert Steinway which he’s accustomed to, but still quite serviceable. He belts out several numbers with the saxophonist, drummer and guitarist. It’s odds-on that the patrons have never ever seen – or  listened to – a pianist attired in immaculate evening wear, with tails, in their club.

The film ends up with a non-stop drive back to New York to be in the Big Apple for Christmas Eve and the Vallelonga family dinner. Dr Shirley takes on some of the driving duties in the blinding snow and on ultra slippery highways.

This is a movie with a tight script expertly delivered by two superb actors. Expect it to feature prominently in next month’s Academy Awards ceremony, not just for Ali (Best Supporting Actor) and Mortensen (Best Actor) but also for Original Screenplay and Best Picture.

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