The title is in reference to The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guide that was published from 1936 to 1966. An African-American, a postal employee from Harlem named Victor Hugo Green, originated the guide. He did so because of the height of Jim Crow Laws, which prevented black people who wanted to travel through any and all states from getting food, gas and lodging at certain places. The guide helped black travelers avoid discrimination and the danger from bigoted things they might face on the open road, including interactions from police. A lot of black people took to the road in cars because they weren’t allowed on a lot of modes of public transportation. But even traveling in their own cars proved potentially hazardous for them, particularly in or through what’s called “sundown towns” or towns that did not allow non-whites in the town or outside after the sun went down. A lot of black athletes, entertainers and salesmen needed this guide in order to help protect themselves and stay safe.
Making Victor Hugo Green the subject of this film and how he created this guide would have been an interesting film, but that’s not what this movie is. Making this film about the plight and issues that black travelers have to face while on the road would have also been an interesting film. Director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber) detaches himself from his filmmaker brother Bobby Farrelly, probably for the first time, to tell a story that he most likely felt would do justice to that plight and arguably it does. But whatever spotlight this movie tries to put on the problems that Green was trying to solve, gets drowned out by the other thing this movie is spotlighting.
Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and A Perfect Murder) stars as Tony Lip, a bouncer at the Copacabana, the legendary nightclub in Manhattan. Given the subject matter of this film, it’s odd that Farrelly never brings up the Copacabana’s racially-tense history, but when the Copacabana is briefly shut down, Tony is in need of work and money. His friends recommend him for a job in 1962, driving a black musician, as he goes on tour in the South, particularly through places like Mississippi and Alabama. Tony is a big, tough guy with a bit of a reputation of handling tough situations, so he’s seen as perfect for the job. He has a few racist tendencies, but he overlooks them because he needs the money more.
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) co-stars as Don Shirley, the real-life, black pianist who lived above Carnegie Hall. He played and wrote music for some of the most well-known orchestras, including the Boston Pops and the New York Philharmonic, as well as many others. He had a doctorate in music and was referred to as Dr. Shirley. He spoke eight languages fluently and even had a degree in psychology. He was known mostly for his work and his recording career, but not much is known about his personal life. He was divorced but had no children. He also had a brother and half-sister whom we never see here in this film. He had friends but his personal life seemed to have been kept pretty personal and the reason is because that Don was thought to be gay or at least had some, same-sex attraction.
Both Shirley and Lip died in 2013 within a few months of each other. Both were in their 80’s. In addition to Farrelly, this movie is co-written by Nick Vallelonga who is the son of Tony Lip. Presumably, a lot of the personal details about Shirley, including his sexual preferences, were probably communicated to Nick from his father. There’s at least one story that is communicated which made Shirley’s homosexuality abundantly clear, but that’s all the evidence that was apparently available. Reportedly, Shirley was a bit of a loner, but he did have some friendships. He was in fact part of a music trio and reportedly, he was friends with Duke Ellington.
Obviously, Ellington has long since been dead, but Ellington was close friends with Billy Strayhorn, another black musician who was openly gay and was around years before Shirley. So if anyone would have been accepting of Shirley’s homosexuality, it would have been Ellington. A film about Shirley’s friendship with Ellington, in that regard, would have been a more engaging film to who Shirley truly was as a gay man and as a black musician. However, because Vallelonga is the writer here, the story instead is more about Tony Lip, which is why the title really makes no sense or else it gives an impression that this movie doesn’t really fill in.
Essentially, this is Tony’s story. The movie starts with him and ends with him. We follow him home and get to know his wife, Dolores, played by Linda Cardellini (Mad Men and ER). We follow him as he searches for jobs, even during a ridiculous hot dog eating contest. However, we don’t follow Don in the same way. There are a couple of scenes where we see Don by himself feeling distant from the black community, as well as being discriminated in the white community. But mostly this movie is Tony’s observations and feelings.
The purpose then has to be questioned. What was the point of doing this film this way? I suppose the point is as the marketing suggests to highlight a special friendship, but the question is what makes the friendship between these two more special than even Shirley’s friendship with Ellington. Was it simply that it lasted longer, only because Ellington died 30 years before Lip did? That feels more circumstantial and superficial. Are we to believe that Shirley’s relationship with Lip changed Shirley in some fundamental way or is it more about Lip having been changed as a result of knowing Shirley? If that’s the case, then it’s an admirable purpose for which to make a film, but it puts this film more on the side of the “magical negro” trope.
If the purpose of the film is to show how Lip helped Shirley, then the movie is put more into the category of the “white savior” trope in cinema. Like the magical negro, the white savior trope is a rather undesirable, narrative type. It’s not to say that a film about an interracial relationship is impossible nowadays, but to do so, the film has to balance the lives of the black person with the white person. This film doesn’t do so. One prime example is that we meet Tony’s family. Yet, this film never introduces us to Don’s family. He mentions a brother. One would assume that the climax would be Don reaching out to that brother, but sadly this movie never goes there. Instead, it ends with Don spending Christmas with Tony’s family.
When the movie clearly favors the white person, as this film clearly does, then that’s when it’s problematic, no matter the intentions of anyone involved. The movie misses an obvious avenue as well. Maybe, Don’s distance from black people and his family isn’t due to his intelligentsia, but it could be due to his sexuality and fear of homophobic backlash. At one point, Don mentions his ex-wife, but it’s quickly brushed over, whereas again so much time is dedicated to Tony’s wife. There’s an imbalance to the characters. The scale is tipped toward Tony and it’s unfair.
Rated PG-13 for language, racial epithets, smoking, violence and suggestive material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.