By Randy Freedman
Director Peter Farrelly's 2018 film The Green Book is a highly entertaining, yet disturbingly accurate and highly controversial commentary on very serious social and racial issues.
It is presented with earnestness, and comedic expertise that demands viewing, despite disturbing allegations that have been made about both the director and producers.
It is something of a buddy road trip movie, based on true events, with the hook of two main characters that live in such totally different worlds that they barely understand each other. Green Book stars Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali as pianist Dr. Don Shirley and Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen as his driver and bodyguard Tony Vallelonga. The film has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Mortensen for Best Actor and Ali for Best Supporting Actor.
It is based on a true story, and follows the two as they tour the deep south in the 1960s. Green Book is co-written by Brian Currie, Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son and Farrelly, who's primarily known for directing broad comedies like Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary with his brother Bobby. For Farrelly, it represents a change in direction toward more serious material. Distinctive and amusing performances by Mortensen and Ali make Farrelly’s first solo feature outing, a lively and likable diversion. I will discuss in detail all the controversies concerning the Green Book at the conclusion of this article.
In 1962, Dr. Donald Shirley, a black classically-trained piano virtuoso, a prodigy who could superbly play any kind of music, from classical to jazz is preparing to tour racist sections of the American Midwest, upper South and Deep South. Shirley could have earned better money if he had stayed home in New York City, playing to adoring audiences on Park Avenue, but this tour was intended to, at a minimum, prove a point if not perhaps intentionally provoke controversy.
He correctly foresees receiving at least some small level of tolerance from the performing arts halls, country clubs and Antebellum mansion “house concerts” on his itinerary. But mainly , he foresees potential trouble and racial tension, in the miles and miles of two lane blacktop highway in between his performances. Realizing his need to be accompanied on this potentially dangerous journey by a capable white chauffeur, road manager, and minder, Dr Shirley interviews potential drivers in his home. He lives in a very tastefully decorated New York apartment, filled with art and just upstairs from Carnegie Hall. After apparently choosing from many candidates, Shirley finally decides to employ a man who came highly recommended by his own recording company, a waiter/bouncer and all around tough guy at New York's Copacabana Nightclub; Tony Vallelonga, aka "Tony Lip."
Shirley and Vallelonga seem to be a very unlikely pairing. The Jamaican-born Shirley, was educated, urbane, spoke numerous languages (including Russian), liberal, a man who moved easily in the company of royalty and Presidents, and carried himself as an aristocrat who placed great stock in propriety and decorum.
Vallelonga, is a big, brutish man, a 40 something, Bronx family man and self-described bigot, with a comically voracious appetite. Always looking for an angle, Vallelonga deliberately “misplaces” the right mobster’s hat to create a scene and “come to the rescue” situation, thus inviting an obligation for future favors from the boss. But the Copa is closing down for renovations, and he has been reduced to winning hot dog eating contests to earn enough day to day spending money. Financial necessity contributes to Vallelonga being open to the idea of driving Dr Shirley, despite his bigotry. And Dr Shirley's need for his services is very real.
The films title is a shortening of The Negro Motorist Green Book, published yearly from 1936-to 1966 for black people traveling through the south and certain other parts of the United States. It detailed where to sleep, eat, get gas and do many other things in relative safely. As Farrelly told the Independent Record "It described where to avoid 'sundown towns', where black people could be during the day and not after dark. One of the things that’s not in the movie but we learned is, when people or whole families were driving through the South at that time, “sundown towns” were clearly marked so they would pull over on the side of the road and sleep in the car. There would be lines of 10-12 cars all waiting for the sun to come up so they could pass through. It was horrible."
After being Interviewed by Dr Shirley for what he thought was a position as chauffeur and being informed he’ll need to launder shirts and serve as valet on tour as well, Vallelonga declines the position and suggests a previously interviewed candidate (in his totally insensitive yet colorful manner, might be better suited for the job. But ultimately the two men agree and begin an epic journey of discovery and increased understanding, through the confusing and polarizing landscape of the United States in the nineteen sixties.
Cinematographer Sean Porter is the picture’s unsung hero. His vivid take on ‘60s-era New York City is full of idealized nostalgia. Tony’s Bronx neighborhood is all malt shops, doo-wop music, and neon signs. It’s a pleasure looking at the movie’s romanticized vision of the past, and it makes an alluring backdrop to the start of Vallelonga's journey.
The movie gets darker as the journey goes further South, and as the myriad indignities and humiliations mount. But our investment in the characters rarely flags, thanks to Mortensen and Ali and a director who is interested in cleanly and efficiently delivering a story worth hearing.
Green Book comments on the intolerance plaguing us today, specifically at the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Tony defines himself as a proud Italian, and that is the lens through which he sees the world.
A breakthrough occurs when Shirley observes that Vallelonga writes as poorly as he speaks and begins to help him with letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini, in a small but vivid role). Shirley starts to look upon uncouth, untutored Vallelonga as a kind of project , stepping in to mentor him and recast Vallelonga's dull letters home as heartfelt expressions of love.
This leads, of course, to bonding, beautifully played by both actors, which affects Vallelonga as he sees his own bigotry enshrined as institutionalized behavior in the South. He starts to see things through Shirley's perspective, and is a little ashamed of himself. Some of this is on point as the movie plunges bravely into crosscurrents of race and class with
more bravado than finesse. But Ali and Mortensen make the friendship feel real, using some unexpected tools from Farrelly's kit. His comedic instincts help the movie tiptoe through some dangerous cultural minefields, like when Tony becomes fixated on the idea of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky. Shirley sits in the backseat with a look of horror, but his disdain gives way to curiosity (or perhaps plain old hunger) as the seductive fragrance of chicken fills up the car. What follows is a graceful slapstick of eating, sharing, and emerging friendship shaped by the in-character gestures of both actors.
The proud Bronx tradition Vallelonga uses to prop himself up also smothers him. He doesn’t realize what a small world he resides in until Shirley comes along. Only when forced out of his comfort zone, practically kicking and screaming, does Vallelonga finally grasp how much of life he’s missing out on. It’s impossible to imagine America without its rich tapestry of diverse cultures.
Or perhaps, the entire movie can be summarized, in capsule, much like the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky scene. You may wonder about the nourishment, but it's still tempting and hard to resist.
A timeline of the controversies surrounding the film The Green Book: Source Buzz Feed
Sept. 8, 2018
Viggo Mortensen uses the n-word in a post-screening Q&A
At a post-screening Q&A for Green Book in Los Angeles, actor Viggo Mortensen said, “People don’t say ‘nigger’ anymore,” which reportedly took all the air out of the room. Mortensen, who was seated next to costar Mahershala Ali, later clarified that the point he had been trying to make was that “many people casually used the n-word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place.” Still, he released an apology the next day. “I do not use the word in private or in public,” he said. “I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”
Ali released a statement two days later, saying however “well-intended or intellectual” the conversation may have been, “it wasn’t appropriate for Viggo to say the n-word.” He added that Mortensen “has made it clear to me that he’s aware of this, and apologized profusely immediately following the Q & A with (African American film critic) Elvis Mitchell.
Nov. 21, 2018:
The Shirley family denounces the film
Calling into NPR’s 1A Movie Club, Shirley’s youngest and last living brother, Maurice Shirley, as well as his niece Carol Shirley Kimble, insisted Green Book is “full of lies.” Kimble went on to add that the film, cowritten by Tony Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga, was “once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life. ... To depict him and take away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best.”
As surviving members of Shirley’s family continued to dispute details from the film, such as Tony Vallelonga introducing Shirley to fried chicken and to Little Richard’s music, writers Nick Vallelonga and Peter Farrelly shifted their narrative from the film being historically accurate to being entirely true from the perspective of Tony Vallelonga, whom Nick had audio
tapes of that were used to write the screenplay.
Dec. 14, 2018:
Mahershala Ali apologizes to the Shirley family for his role in the film
In December, more members of the Shirley family, including Don Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III, spoke to Shadow and Act and reiterated just how far from the truth Green Book was in their eyes.
While the film depicts Shirley as being cut off from both his family and the black community as a whole, his family noted his close friendships with Martin Luther King Jr. and contemporary black musicians like Nina Simone. They also pointed out that he was the best man at his brother’s wedding two years after the events in the film.
The Shirleys also say that the exact day their concerns about the film were aired on NPR, Maurice and Edwin Shirley received a phone call from Mahershala Ali, who apologized. “If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry,” the family said the actor told them. “I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.”
Jan. 6, 2018:
Green Book wins three Golden Globe Awards
Green Book took home three Golden Globes in January, for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy; Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor; and Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly for Best Screenplay. But the optics of Farrelly giving a long speech about race relations in America on a stage with a majority of white men, for a film its black subject’s family disavows, sparked criticism.
Jan. 7, 2019:
Peter Farrelly apologizes for having flashed his penis in the workplace years earlier.
Shortly after the Golden Globes, the Cut resurfaced Green Book director Peter Farrelly’s history of flashing his penis in the workplace.
In a 1998 Newsweek story, There’s Something About Mary ,star Cameron Diaz is quoted as having been one of the people flashed.“When a director shows you his penis the first time you meet him, you’ve got to recognize the creative genius,” she said. Farrelly later confirmed Diaz’s anecdote in a 1998 Observer interview, saying, “Of course! That’s what got her in.”
While he previously brushed his actions off as a joke, Farrelly released a statement the same day the Cut story was published apologizing for his actions. “True. I was an idiot. ... I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now,” he said. “I’m deeply sorry.”
Jan. 7, 2019:
An anti-Muslim conspiracy tweet by screenwriter Nick Vallelonga resurfaces
The same day director Peter Farrelly apologized for flashing his penis, his Green Book cowriter, Nick Vallelonga — the real-life son of the character Viggo Mortensen depicts in the movie — was also forced to answer for his past. The issue was a 2015 tweet in which he agreed with then–presidential candidate Donald Trump that there was footage on 9/11 of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the terrorist attack, saying he had seen it too. At the time, Trump was perpetuating the conspiracy theory, which there has never been any evidence for to corroborate.
The tweet hit especially hard given that Green Book costar Mahershala Ali is Muslim. When BuzzFeed News first reached out to Nick Vallelonga about the tweet, the Twitter account had been deleted and he had no comment. The next day, however, he released a statement apologizing. “I especially deeply apologize to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused,” he said. “I am also sorry to my late father who changed so much from Dr. Shirley’s friendship and I promise this lesson is not lost on me. Green Book is a story about love, acceptance and overcoming barriers, and I will do better.”
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.