‘Green Book’ Review: When southern prejudice forces two different men to work together

On a journey in the South as a black pianist with a white driver, the men are pushed to understand each other and grow to appreciate their differences.

Based on a true story, “Green Book” brilliantly explores the racial prejudice of the 1960s and the struggle to find one’s own identity while respecting someone else’s. Peter Farrelly directs a movie with a combination of humor, cultural references and probing questions. It respectfully approaches the difficult topic of segregation and builds a friendship that inspires viewers to not judge someone by the color of their skin. The movie shows us that even the toughest personalities can be softened over time as the characters begin to see past their own perceptions.

When we first meet Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), he is working at a nightclub as a bouncer. There he uses his craftiness and strength to earn the most profit as well as squashing any fights that break out during the night. He goes home to his wife and two kids, but must quickly find a new job while the club is closed for renovations. As an Italian-American, the Vallelonga family works off of each paycheck and his odd betting games are not a stable form of revenue.

Vallelonga gets a call to be a driver for a doctor but soon finds out that Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is neither a medical doctor nor a man of his own color. Despite his strong prejudices against African Americans, Vallelonga and Shirley both know that he is the best man for the job with his willingness to fight for their protection. As an outstanding classical pianist in a trio group, Shirley plans to tour in the deep South for three months. The year is 1962 and opposition to his race is still high but Shirley chooses to face this challenge.

As the men depart from their home in New York, Vallelonga is given “The Negro Motorist Green Book” as a travel guide to navigate safely through the segregation in the South. Initially Vallelonga does not take his job seriously and both men struggle to get along with their clashing, strong personalities. Shirley is a rich snob, while Vallelonga is down-to-earth and blunt. They clearly have very narrow perceptions of each other as well.

They drive all day, play for fancy rich people at night, and go to bed in often separate hotels due to segregation laws. More than once, Vallelonga must step in to save Shirley from the abuse he suffers at the hands of prejudiced whites. Vallelonga’s anger shows when he must rescue his boss numerous times, but he also is consistently willing to stick up against the disrespect aimed at Shirley. Slowly both men begin to bend their ways and open up to the advice of their fellow travel partner.

Despite Shirley’s stoic approach to the abuse he encounters, Vallelonga sees his loneliness and begins to understand his boss’ struggle. Shirley cannot connect with people of his race because of his great wealth but is still trashed by whites off the stage. Only Vallelonga steps up to be his friend. Most importantly, Vallelonga shows Shirley to use his courage in other ways to stand up for himself while Vallelonga learns to fully respect Shirley as a fellow human being.

Although Vallelonga and Shirley were brought together by alternative motives, they both learn more about themselves and about each other, which allows them to grow closer and stand stronger as individuals. If a tough Italian bouncer with preconceived stereotypes and a stuck-up pianist can build a friendship to last a lifetime, narrow-minded obstacles can be overcome. Although the same level of prejudice does not stand today, “Green Book” dares us to reach out to others with understanding and respect because chances are we could all learn something from people different from ourselves.

Depicting the prejudice in the South, growth of a relationship and humor which comes with trying new things, “Green Book” provides quality entertainment for mature audiences. It challenges the viewer to take on an open-minded perspective and appreciate the kindness that develops through tough times along the road. This genuine film, which was articulately crafted, never has a dull moment so join the ride to see where Vallelonga and Shirley’s journey takes them.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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