Green Book (2018) by Peter Farrelly
Review by Courtney Anderson
I don’t know if a lot of people know about Dr. Don Shirley.
Don Shirley was a Jamaican-American pianist who began learning how to play piano when he was 2 years old. By the time he was 9 years old, he was studying music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. Shirley would spend most of his life composing, performing, and finding new ways to change the way jazz music was viewed.
Shirley spoke eight languages, and somehow found time to earn a doctorate of Music, Psychology and Liturgical Arts. In his obituary, The New York Times stated that Shirley created his own genre of music. Don Shirley was a genius.
Shirley toured the country, often performing in venues in the South, where Black people weren’t exactly received with love and tenderness. As a matter of fact, traveling while Black could literally cost you your life. Those lovely little “Whites Only” laws made it impossible to find a place to stay. And let’s not forget the “sun down” towns. These were towns that banned Black people from entering after a certain time. And if you were Black and caught in one, chances were that you wouldn’t be leaving alive.
Because of the dangers associated with traveling as a Black human being, a Black mailman named Victor Hugo Green had an idea for a guide specifically for Black travelers. Green and his wife Alma would eventually create the “Negro Motorist Green Book” or the “Green Book” for short. Published annually, the Green Book provided a listings of restaurants, hotels, and other establishments that were Black-owned or welcomed Black people. The book was a literal life-saver: there was no way you were hitting the road without it.
Like Dr. Don Shirley, the Green Book is a enthralling piece of Black history that has been overlooked and deserves further exploration. So, the idea of a movie titled “Green Book” that details Dr. Don Shirley’s 1960s tour across the country sounds amazing. It sounds like the perfect way to blend the two stories and shed light on two incredible histories. Having Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali portray Don Shirley would be icing on the cake.
So you can imagine my irritation when I realized that Peter Farrelly’s film Green Book isn’t actually about Dr. Don Shirley or the Negro Motorist Green Book.
As it turns out, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book uses vital pieces of Black history as plot devices to tell the story of a loud-mouthed racist who learns to be less racist because of that time he became friends with a cool Black guy.
Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is about Tony Lip, aka Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka that guy from “The Sopranos.” In the early 1960s, Tony Lip was working as a bouncer. At some point, he was hired as a driver for Dr. Don Shirley’s tour through America, taking him into the deep South to perform.
In the beginning of the film, Lip is portrayed as almost cartoonishly racist. He’s the kind of racist who throws out glasses because Black people have drank out of them. Throughout the film, we are asked to believe that Lip becomes less racist through his relationship with Shirley. Lip and Shirley become closer as Lip protects Shirley, and Shirley works to refine his uncouth friend.
Lip also lectures Shirley about Shirley’s supposed isolation from the rest of the Black community. You see, Shirley doesn’t get the finer points of Black America, such as fried chicken and having low-paying jobs, so it’s Lip’s job to educate his friend. Because, let Lip tell it, he is more of a Black person than Shirley because he’s working class, doesn’t eat fancy food, and has shared space with other Black people.
Lip is shown to be Shirley’s savior at almost every turn in this movie. Lip saves Shirley from a gang of violent white people. He saves Shirley from the police when they catch Shirley in the middle of a sexual encounter with a white man. Lip saves Shirley from Shirley’s conflicted views on Blackness. And, at the end, he saves Shirley from loneliness and isolation by bringing him into his family’s space. This has got to be one of the most White Savior movies I’ve seen in a long time.
In Peter Farrelly’s world, Don Shirley exists not as the virtuoso that he was, but as a stepping stone for Frank Vallelonga. Shirley’s story takes a literal backseat to Lip; he’s a minor character in a movie that should be about him. Because I am much more interested in learning about the queer Jamaican wunderkind who created his own genre of music while navigating violent anti-Black racism using a tool provided by a Black couple. I do not care about Lip possibly unlearning his racism because he has to make sure a Black man doesn’t get killed.
I don’t really have a reason to care about Lip. He’s crass, rude, and spews microaggressions every few seconds. They try to make him the everyman, but there’s nothing about him that I can relate to. There’s also an element of “If he can change, anyone can change,” but, again, they celebrate Lip’s “change” at the expense of Shirley’s development.
But at least Shirley is a minor character. The actual Green Book gets mentioned only a couple of times in the movie. Worst yet, Peter Farrelly portrays the book as unhelpful, as it leads Shirley and Lip to a dump of a hotel that Lip derides.
This movie doesn’t take the guide seriously. I suspect that Farrelly does not understand how important the Green Book or someone like Dr. Don Shirley is to Black people. Moreover, I suspect that he does not care to understand how important they are. Farrelly seems perfectly content with his own limited understanding of Black history and racism. He is very confident in his assertion that racism is cured through an odd couple-esque adventure with people of different races and backgrounds. There’s no need for further analysis. There’s no need to dig into the complexity of Shirley’s academic and musical success in the context of an anti-Black society. There’s no need to interrogate whether or not Lip’s newfound tolerance for Black people extends past his relationship with Shirley. Nope, all we need is to spend time together.
There are a few things that I have learned that have helped me understand why this movie turned out the way it did.
I learned that the movie is partially written by Frank Vallelonga’s son Nick, which helps me understand why it’s so centered on Lip’s character.
I learned that Dr. Don Shirley’s family recently spoke out against the movie, calling it a “bunch of lies,” and that helped me understand that the filmmakers may not have done their due diligence when making this film.
I learned that Peter Farrelly is the same guy from the show “Project Greenlight,” the one who quit the show after an argument with a Black female producer by the name of Effie Brown. They had a disagreement because Brown felt that Farrelly was undermining her position as producer. Farrelly responded by leaving the show and saying that he didn’t want any of Brown’s “drama.” Farrelly later said that he felt like the show was starting to turn into a “Housewives” type of show, referring to the “Real Housewives Of . . .” reality shows. Learning this made me realize that perhaps Farrelly isn’t self-reflective enough to realize when he’s swerving out of his lane. If he were, maybe he would’ve been more willing to work with Brown and understand where she was coming from.
And finally, I learned that Viggo Mortensen, the actor portraying Lip, used the n-word during a Q&A session that followed a screening of the movie. He said it with Mahershala Ali sitting right next to him. In his apology, Mortensen claimed he was using the word to make a point about how casually people used it in 1962, and how that’s not the case anymore. Reading about this incident made me feel as though this movie did not accomplish what they thought it would. If one of your stars still feels safe to say the n-word after making movie about racism, you didn’t do your job.
Green Book ultimately feels like a waste. The film takes two fascinating parts of Black history and ignores them in favor of a limp attempt at a “woke” feel-good movie. If your film about a Black man traveling through the deep South alongside a racist white man in 1962 can be described as a “perfect movie for the holidays,” you failed at whatever you were trying to do.
I just hope that someone manages to give Dr. Don Shirley and the Negro Motorist Green Book the biopics they deserve one day.