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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Review: Green Book

Ali, Mortensen deliver a heartwarming performance

The movie “Green Book” features stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as they make their way through the Deep South during the Jim Crow Era. Ali graces the screen as the renowned African American pianist Don Shirley, who tours high-society venues throughout the South with the goal of changing racist perspectives with his performances.

“Green Book” begins by introducing the Italian-American Tony Vallelonga, played by Mortensen. When the nightclub where Vallelonga works as a bouncer closes for renovations, Vallelonga finds himself struggling to pay rent and support his family, going so far as to compete in a hotdog eating competition.

Shirley hires Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard for his tour. While Shirley is refined, dignified and holds a doctorate in Psychology, Music and Liturgical Arts, Vallelonga is crude, vulgar and illiterate. Vallelonga is also racist. An early scene finds Vallelonga’s wife, Dolores, offering lemonade to African American repairmen, to which Vallelonga responds by tossing the used glasses in the trash. He reluctantly accepts the job as Shirley’s driver.

To be expected, Vallelonga clashes with Shirley, and the two begin the eight-week tour in mutual dislike. Vallelonga becomes increasingly impressed with Shirley’s classical performances and the high end venues. He writes his wife that he thinks Shirley is a genius.

Vallelonga also becomes more and more aware of the blatant prejudice Shirley endures. He is forced to refer to a pamphlet called the Green Book, a guide for African Americans on where they are welcome to shop, eat and sleep.

The duo manage their way through segregated hotels and bathrooms, sundown towns and violent exchanges. Throughout the trip, Vallelonga writes letters to his wife detailing his experiences and attempting to express his love for her. With help from Shirley, Vallelonga improves his romantic prose and a new understanding between the two men develops.

While the movie is ripe with comedic moments, a dialogue is opened about race in America. At one point, Vallelonga claims that with his low-income and living situation, he is more African American than Shirley. He cites the fact that Shirley was raised in a high-class society, lives in an ornately decorated apartment above Carnegie Hall and is not at all familiar with the stereotypical food and music of African American culture. Shirley shuts him down by distinguishing between race and class. Even though poor and uneducated, Vallelonga is still white and this ultimately grants him privilege and access.

“Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly, is based off a true story. Vallelonga’s son, Nick Vallelonga, wrote the screenplay based on his father’s letters to his mother and interviews with his father and Shirley, who reportedly remained good friends. There has been recent controversy, however. Shirley’s living relatives condemned the film for overstating the friendship between the men, in addition to falsely portraying Shirley as isolated and uncomfortable with his identity. “The Green Book” also depends on the problematic “Magical Negro” trope, where a black man and his story only exist to help a white man with his problems, which is seen is “The Green Mile,” “Ghost,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Despite this, “Green Book” is a feel-good optimistic film. While at first glance the film comes across as formulaic, subscribing to both the buddy movie and road trip plot cliches, the phenomenal acting by both Mortensen and Ali contribute to a fresh, nuanced performance.

So far well-received by audiences and critics, “Green Book” is already generating awards season buzz. The National Board of Review has named it the best film of 2018.

“Green Book” is playing at Regal Davis Stadium 5 as well as at multiple theaters in Sacramento.

Written By: Cheyenne Wiseman — arts@theaggie.org


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