3 Stars – Challenging
It takes remarkable courage to challenge the bias and prejudice of culture, especially in the mid-20th century deep-south where that bias was toxic. The Green Book takes us back to a time in 1962 that seems historically quaint, but for those of us who lived through it, we are reminded of how horrific it really was in its deeply rooted prejudice. Any challenge to the accepted rules of segregation were met with violent police response, community terrorism, and public lynchings were common and never prosecuted.
In the north, prejudice was slightly more subtle, but just as common. In this story based on a real-life experience, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American world-renown classical and jazz pianist who, with his record company, decides to tour the southern states playing concerts. While his outward motive may have been to sell recordings and concert tickets, his inward motive was to challenge the racial norms of the day. This does not come without pain and suffering.
Dr. Shirley, who has multiple degrees and doctorates, lives in luxury above the classical New York musical mecca known as Carnegie Hall. In order to protect himself from the savagery of southern prejudice he seeks out and hires a driver/valet who is a hard-nosed Italian American living in the Bronx and has a reputation for not taking any grief from anyone. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is a working class waiter and bouncer with a salty vocabulary that is stereotypical of a Bronx street fighter. He is also obnoxiously prejudice against African- Americans.
Ali and Mortensen are both actors at the top of their game, and each has had multiple roles and awards for the remarkable films in which they have stared. Their performances here are equally stellar. What emerges in this story is an extraordinary friendship that slowly grows throughout the eight-week musical tour.
Tony Lip’s caustic behavior is not just working class bravado, it is deeply rooted in his family of origin. It is a comical mixture of the stereotypes of Italian American families. Meanwhile, Dr. Shirley’s lifestyle is anything but the common perception of African-Americans at that period in time. He is wealthy, lives in an enviable location, world-renown in his talent, and very wise in his respect for others.
We won’t give away all of the delightful and sometimes tragic events that happen throughout their trip, but the experience changed both of their lives and perceptions of the world. In the end, these two become bonded brothers. In real life, these two men who met in 1962 maintained their friendship up to the time that both of them died in 2013.
Equally embed in this tale is the fact that the challenges of their inner lives, and their inner demons, were as debilitating and in need of healing, as the external prejudices and challenges of the culture. While the Green Book is a reference to a common guidebook used in the south that listed hotels and restaurants open to “colored people”, what was not as easily referenced or published was how you find a way to make peace with your own past. As it turned out, the interactions of being in relationship with someone very different that yourself proved to be the catalyst for that healing and new found freedom.
James Cone wrote a book: The Cross and the Lynching Tree, to show that evil will destroy innocence when given the chance. Evil killed Jesus and the young black Americans. That Jesus calls us to love and care for every person from every nation, language and tribe is undeniable. Why do you think some have misunderstood this? Is it deliberate evil or are we being deceived by evil, or is there some other reason?
The power of friendship, community and love are clearly demonstrated both in art and in history. Why do you think we avoid such experiences, especially with those who are different from us in some way?