Mahershala Ali could not have chosen a better follow-up role. After earning a well-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar for Moonlight two years ago, the versatile actor tries something completely different in Green Book. It’s a serious-minded yet entertaining view of racism in the American South, circa 1962, as experienced by a working-class white guy from Brooklyn hired to drive a cultured black pianist on a concert tour through the Deep South.
Directed by Peter Farrelly (one half of the filmmaking brothers responsible for notorious comedies like There’s Something About Mary), the movie is based on a true story. Its portrait of century-old racist attitudes still so deeply ingrained in everyday life could be (and often is) chilling. But the movie succeeds with the chemistry between its excellent stars—Ali as the reserved, morally particular pianist, and Viggo Mortensen is his gregarious, tough-guy driver, forging a hard-won alliance against institutional racism and their own personal prejudices.
Scripted by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie, the movie proceeds from the viewpoint of Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen), called “Tony Lip” for his ability to BS his way out of any situation. (Co-scriptwriter Nick is the real-life Tony’s son.) Introduced as a quick-thinking, hard-hitting bouncer at the Copacabana, he’s well-liked among the neighborhood wise guys. So when the Copa shuts down for a few months, Tony is set up with a temp-job interview for a chauffeur position with a mysterious client.
He turns out to be Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American musician with a Ph.D. from Julliard, who greets Tony dressed in a white and gold dashiki, sitting on a throne in his swanky apartment above Carnegie Hall. Nimble-fingered Shirley is about to embark on a concert tour of the Deep South, and he warily hires Tony, despite the vast gulf in culture and experience between them. Tony needs a job to tide over his wife and kids until the Copa reopens; Shirley needs a driver who can handle himself.
Their travel guide is the “Green Book,” (published in 1936, and still sadly relevant in the ’60s) that points travelers of color to places considered safe to eat and sleep in the South. Tony and his Italian-American buddies indulge in the casual prejudice against their black neighbors that one tribe so often exercises against others perceived as even more underclass than themselves, but Tony is a worker bee who understands loyalty to his boss—especially after he sees Shirley play the piano.
Tony starts to empathize with the black man so lauded by the wealthy white audiences who come to hear him play (in private house concerts in increasingly Tara-like mansions), but forbidden to use the same bathroom or eat in the same restaurants. Shirley remains aloof at first, except to correct Tony’s diction and chastise him for littering. But it’s implied his reserve is more from inexperience of the world than sheer snootiness.
On the road, Tony loosens him up, introducing Shirley to fried chicken and Little Richard. (Remember, it’s Tony’s son telling this story.) Meanwhile, Shirley begins to edit, then dictate, romantic letters home to Tony’s appreciative wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini). Their friendship blossoms into mutual respect as the trip becomes more dangerous. When Tony asks why someone as talented as Shirley undertakes such a risky tour, the cellist in Shirley’s trio says, “Genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”
Farrelly trots out all the usual suspects—sneering Southern cops, smarmy white hoteliers, shifty black thieves at a rollicking roadhouse. (He trades in equal-opportunity stereotypes.) But the movie glides by on cruise control, thanks to its charismatic stars. Ali, with his killer grin, looks about a foot taller and way more willowy than he did in Moonlight. Mortensen impresses with his edgy, good-humored chutzpah and capacity to grow his character. Together, they make this a trip worth taking.
***(out of four)
With Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali and Linda Cardellini. Written by Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie. Directed by Peter Farrelly. A Universal release, Rated PG-13. 135 minutes.