At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 15 Feb 2019
Peter Farrelly / USA / 2018 / 130 mins
The Negro Motorist Green Book was a mid-20th century guidebook for African-American travellers that recommended establishments accepting of black guests. The eponymous film Green Book recounts the tale of a somewhat unlikely friendship between the hugely-talented black classical pianist Don Shirley and his tour driver – Tony Lip, an Italo-American straight out of the Bronx. The green book is their guide as Shirley embarks on a concert tour of the deep South in the autumn of 1962. Whilst there are hints that times are a-changing, this area remains deeply racially-divided and there are also glimpses of the past, including a powerful scene featuring a field of black cotton pickers.
Lip and Shirley are opposites in more than just skin colour. Lip is played to perfection by Viggo Mortensen, who incidentally gained 30 pounds for this role. He is an ex-bouncer, a stereotypical tough-talking New Yorker, fairly uneducated but supremely street smart. He gets Shirley out of trouble on more than one occasion. Shirley (portrayed by Mahersala Ali), is something of a paradox, a world-class pianist, yet also deficient in many ways. Unfamiliar with black culture due to his rarified upbringing, he’s a rather lost soul, someone who doesn’t really belong in either world. Ali plays Shirley as restrained and self-possessed, an ideal foil for the ebullient Lip.
The settings for the film are highly evocative of early 60s America, from the family gatherings in Lip’s New York Italian home to the hotel for “coloreds” in the South. The apartheid and humiliation that Shirley encounters as the tour progresses is ugly and shameful, yet some gentle humour helps to lighten the mood amidst more serious and thought-provoking episodes. They are an odd couple, but the employer/employee pairing morphs into friendship, against the backdrop of a divided society and a more personal transformation in Lip. In the beginning he is depicted as being casually racist; by the end of the film he’s defending Shirley with his fists and welcoming him into his home.
Directed by Peter Farrelly, who has historically tackled lighter and less serious subject matter, Green Book trundles along at a fairly leisurely pace and could have benefited from a little editing. It is, however, a multi-layered tale, resonating all the more because it’s based upon a true story, and was part written and produced by Lip’s own son Nick Vallelonga.