By Margaretta wa Gacheru (5 February 2019)
‘Green Book’ is a soul-stirring film that is revelatory as far as seeing the racism, white supremacy and daily insults endured by African Americans in the 1960s.
The difference between then and now is that the period covered in this heart-wrenching film (which some critics describe as a ‘comedy’; not me) is one where segregation and discrimination was legal. That’s why there was need for the ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ which concert pianist Dr Don Shirley (played by the award-winning actor Mahershala Ali) used as a guidebook as he went on a two-month concert tour through the Jim Crow South (states where slavery was legal until 1863).
The film is multi-layered, for on one hand, it’s road trip taken by Dr Shirley after he’s hired the night club bouncer Tony Vallelonga (played brilliantly by Viggo Mortensen, who added 30 pounds to fit the role) to be his driver and de facto body guard in a region of US filled with white supremacists.
On the other hand, the film exposes the complex nature of racism, particularly where whites could appreciate the black man’s musical prowess but despise and discriminate against his color.
What’s equally poignant about the film is that both men change one another in the course of their journey. Tony, a working class Italian-American, has racist traits himself. But as he needs a job and Shirley needs a tough guy to keep him alive in touchy circumstances (as when he gets beat up after accidentally walking into a white bar without his body guard), the two men discovered deep issues about themselves which are transformative.
Shirley is a classically-trained musician who is sought after as a performer and entertainer. But despite having the wealth, education, civility and polished musical artistry, he is estranged from his black roots.
There’s a marvelous moment in the film where they are driving and Tony turns on the radio to hear Aretha Franklin singing “Respect.” Shirley, knowing more about Rachmaninoff and Beethoven than Aretha and ‘Respect’, is challenged by Tony for being cut off from his own people. Suddenly we see Shirley honestly grapple with his identity. He genuinely asks, “If I am not black enough, and if I’m not white enough, what am I?”
Some critics have described ‘Green Book’ as a comedy. And surely to see Viggo Mortensen (who played a lean noble prince in ‘Lord of the Rings’) play a thuggish over-weight bouncer is comical. But the bouncer is deeply moved by this genius pianist whose role as Shirley’s chief protector compels him to see the ugly face of racism and stand up against it.
Green Book has generated heated controversy from Shirley’s family who contest the notion that the film accurately depicts their relation. Shirley is family-less in the film.
But whether Green Book is true to life or not, the story is bitter-sweet and beautiful. The acting by Viggo and Mahershala is fabulous and this film, which is up for several Oscars, has already won major awards.