By Maria Lubanovic, Copy Editor
Green Book follows Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, or Vallelonga, as he insists in the film (Viggo Mortensen) as he drives genius piano player Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a tour through the deep south in the 1960s. Lip has to face his prejudices about working for a black man while protecting him from dangerous situations, using the green book, a guide for places for black people to stay during that time, to resolve some of the racist hotel, restaurant and bar owners.
Read more: Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk
Tony opens the movie as a tough guy with a racism problem, and he has to find ways to make ends meet after losing his job. When he gets a call from a friend trying to help him out, he begrudgingly takes a job with Dr. Don Shirley. He initially struggles to respect and understand Shirley’s perspective, which leads to many roadblocks between the two.
Don Shirley is more than just a brilliant piano player. He helps Tony write beautiful letters to his wife, constantly fights racism at every turn and keeps Tony from taking violent action when he is mistreated. He has his triumphant moments where he toys with what it means to play music for himself and others as a black person, trying to distance himself from the stereotypes so forcefully thrust on him.
From a visual and sonic perspective, the film looks and sounds amazing. The color schemes of deep teals and blues in times of trouble juxtaposed with the warm red and yellow tones in happier scenes brings deeper meaning to surface level moments. The set design, especially in Shirley’s apartment, is immaculate and creates a new dimension of character for him. Ali’s piano playing looks amazingly realistic, and the soundtrack perfectly frames this moment in time; a moment that Shirley consistently goes against on both the piano and his life.
The film, billed as based on a true story, has been taken mostly from the perspective of Tony Vallelonga’s side, which is important because his son, Nick Vallelonga, wrote the script. However, some of the biggest flaws of the film are also because of this. Shirley feels less filled out as a character, with some critics saying that Shirley had a different take on the experiences than what was shown in the film. The portrayal lacks nuance where it should, and the overall story teeters on the edge of the white-savior narrative. This feels a little tone-deaf, as the beginning part of the movie showed Tony “introducing” Shirley to Little Richard and fried chicken.
That being said, what remains of the film, though beautiful, seems backward. If Don Shirley was truly the amazing piano player legend he was, why was the focus so clearly not on him? He doesn’t drive the narrative, and he isn’t in touch at all with his identity. In something that is truly so race-driven, it’s hard not to acknowledge these problems with the film.
Watch the trailer here: