This is a buddy movie and a road movie based on an odd coupling of two different cultures. It draws its authenticity from a friendship between a classical pianist and his chauffer, and one of the writers, Nick Vallelonga, witnessed it. The former is black and the latter is white. The year is 1962. John F Kennedy is newly elected, regarded as a progressive and a liberal. Voters proved that even a Roman Catholic can become President. But while JFK can schmooze with the Rat Pack, and advocate for liberal causes, he would never think of inviting Sammy Davis Junior to the Whitehouse, in the same way he could his buddy Frank Sinatra. Even though the latter had, alleged, Mafia connections.
I’m rambling on here. Trying to illustrate how deadly and dangerous the South was, and it didn’t need to be that Deep, for Dr Shirley (Mahershala Ali), the classical pianist. On the playlist of Southern Caucasus of Senators was hating Communists and, as Senator Old reminded them keeping ‘uppity nigras down’ (quoted in Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson). Senator Jim Eastland also suggested ‘[he] could be standing right in the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say the niggers caused it, helped by the Communists’.
Lyndon B. Johnson despite bringing a draft of civil right bills and pushing them through the Senate wasn’t much of a believer in equality. He’d a black driver, and the future President made sure he knew his place. Having a black driver was acceptable. But, of course, they couldn’t stay in the same place, they couldn’t use the same toilet, or drink water from the same faucet, don’t even think about them drinking in the same bar.
The Green Book in the title refers to the Negro Motorists Green Book (the cover was green). A roadmap, literally a lifeline, listing where black and coloured could stop off for something to eat or drink and stay overnight, without being whipped, or lynched, or jailed on trumped up charges. Out of the way spots where they could relax.
That’s the set-up. First up is showing ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) at work as a bouncer in the Bronx. He’s handy with his fists and gives a petty gangster a beating and flings him out of the Copacabana nightclub and into the street.
‘You don’t know who I am?’ the petty gangster bawls.
Tony shrugs. He’s old school, in with the bricks. He knows all the old Dons that run the numbers and run large parts of street life. He doesn’t take shit. But the Copacabana is closing down and he’s looking for another job.
Black workmen are doing carpentry work in his kitchen and all his Italian relatives are watching a ball game in the living room. They explain (in Italian) that it wouldn’t be right leaving his wife alone with these ‘eggplants’. His wife gives them a glass of lemonade before they leave. Tony picks up the glasses the workmen have used and puts them in the trash.
Tony’s a racist. But he’s also a slob. He wins fifty bucks beating another guy in a contest to see who can eat the most hotdogs. The other guy ate twenty-three. And his wife berates him for losing that amount of money, but then he admits he ate twenty-six and pulls out the note. He’s hitting the high notes.
When he goes to see Dr Shirley he finds out he’s not a real doctor. But he’s impressed by where he stays. Above Carnegie Hall, it’s something like a castle. And Dr Shirley has a manservant and sits on a throne. As well as playing the piano, Dr Shirley speaks several languages, fluently. In other words, he’s upper-class and refined. He’s got connections so far above the petty Dons of Bronx street life that makes small town dictator’s heads spin. When they are jailed Dr Shirley springs them by using his one phone call to phone JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States.
I’m not sure this happened in real life, but it makes for a dramatic scene, and sense of different worlds. When rubbing chalk against cheese something is sure to give. The period detail is great. And the most important thing of all, this movie is great fun.