Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a working class Italian bouncer who seems willing to do just about anything to support his wife and sons. When Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an accomplished pianist, recruits him to work as his driver and bodyguard in the deep South, Tony reluctantly agrees. What follows is the story about the journey of a lifetime.
When we first meet Tony, he’s working as a bouncer in a nightclub, breaking up brawls and getting his hands dirty. Mortensen slips into the role with an ease and familiarity that is so organic you’ll forget he’s acting. The character’s short-comings are difficult to overlook; he’s somewhat crass and an obvious racist, but by the film’s end it is clear that he has changed for the better as a result of meeting Shirley.
I’ve long considered Ali to be a fantastic talent, but his performance here is really special. He exudes a regalness that permeates the screen. Shirley is an eccentric artist, with a highly polished and very refined demeanor. Even still, he seems like he has experienced a lot of pain and disappointments in life. As a Black man in the 1950’s, it should come as no surprise to anyone the struggles that someone like him would face.
Shirley is often portrayed as being “accepted” at an arm’s length by Whites; they want him to share his dazzling talents, but don’t want him to eat in the very clubs and restaurants he performs in. It’s a curious position to be in and one of the causes for his guarded nature.
The relationship between the two men changes dramatically over the course of the movie and I think they each bring out something positive in the other. Tony learns that character, not color, truly define a person, while Dr. Shirley seems to lower his guard and enjoy life more.
While it’s definitely a drama, Green Book has its share of funny moments. A lot of the humor arises in the simplest of ways, like basic dialogue between the characters as they express their differences. Mortensen and Ali share a good rapport and chemistry with one another, which further makes for good entertainment. Prepare to laugh and cry while watching this story unfold.
Green Book is inspired by the real lives of Dr. Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga. Both passed away within months of each other in 2013. If you haven’t seen Green Book yet, I suggest you catch it in theaters before the New Year. Otherwise, look for it on DVD and Blu-ray in the coming months.
As I watched Green Book and looked at Dr. Shirley’s plight in particular, two poems came to mind: Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask“. Are you familiar with one or both of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts as it relates to the film. Let me know in the comments down below!