Thursday, December 13, 2018

Green Book

Dolores Vallelonga and Tony Lip on their wedding day

Tony Lip

Tony Lip and Johnny Mathis, 1959

Tony Lip with Joe DiMaggio, 1964

Tony Lip

Don Shirley, 1970

Don Shirley, 1959

Don Shirley, 1965

Don Shirley at his home above Carnegie Hall in 1979

GREEN BOOK                      B                    
USA  (130 mi)  2018  d:  Peter Farrelly

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.  That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.  It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.
 —excerpt from forward in the 1948 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, published yearly from 1936 to 1966

This appears to be the feel-good Christmas movie of the year, as the holiday finale is a warm tribute to family and good friends, the culmination of what is otherwise a wrenching ordeal to experience.  Inspired by true events, using the historical model of films like Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016) or Ana DuVernay’s Selma (2014), black figures are placed center stage in an attempt to emphasize their contribution to American black history, which in this film includes Don Shirley, a relatively obscure classically trained black pianist turned jazz musician who toured the Deep South in the midst of the Jim Crow era of the early 1960’s, prior to the passage of major Civil Rights legislation, suffering the indignities and humiliation of how blacks were treated in that time, despite providing world class entertainment onstage.  This film is receiving its fair share of criticism for adding the white perspective of Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who worked as a bouncer in various New York City night clubs, rubbing elbows with the stars, developing a reputation for “getting the job done,” recommended by the record company to accompany the maestro on tour, basically providing the muscle needed when the inevitable racially volatile situation arose, as someone used to dealing with violent confrontation was needed.  While the film is immensely appealing, much of it is due to Viggo Mortensen and his amazingly challenging Brando-esque performance (he put on 50 pounds for the role), where brawn over brains is not only highlighted but emphasized, actually dominating and overpowering the performance of Mahershala Ali (from 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight) as Shirley, who is essentially the central historical figure.  This may do the artist an injustice, as Hollywood films portraying black heroes tend to overemphasize white characters at the expense of the black figures, which has the effect of minimizing their strength and historical significance.  And while it is true that Tony Lip is accurately portrayed as a “white savior” in this film ('Green Book' Is A Poorly Titled White Savior Film - Shadow and Act), there is some question as to how Shirley was portrayed among his own culture, as apparently he was much more revered in the black community than his portrayal here, where he is viewed more as an academic, a sophisticated man of letters, receiving doctorate degrees in music, psychology and the Liturgical arts.  This professorial aloofness is expressed in the film by his lack of social engagement, his need to be alone drinking a bottle of Cutty Sark in his room every night, which was written into his contract.  What this does, however, is place more dramatic emphasis on his driver, Tony Lip, an openly acknowledged racist who is portrayed as being more in tune with black culture than Shirley, which is unthinkable, but in the film it’s all played for laughs, especially when Tony is seen introducing fried chicken (eaten with your fingers) along with legendary pop artists like Little Richard, Chubby Checker, and Aretha Franklin to Shirley, as if for the first time, though in truth, according to his family, he needed no such introduction ('Green Book' Is 'Full of Lies': Dr. Don Shirley's Family Speaks Out).  The script was co-written by the director Peter Farrelly, Hollywood scriptwriter Brian Hayes Currie, and Tony Vallelonga’s son, Nick, which may explain his father’s place of emphasis in the film.  One could imagine a totally different movie had it been written by Shirley’s son, where Shirley’s younger brother Edwin Jr. was actually friends with Martin and Coretta King, often spending vacations with them, while Shirley developed a lasting friendship with jazz great Duke Ellington, performing together with him in his appearances at Carnegie Hall.  But the truth is Hollywood is not open to scripts from sons of black historical figures while keeping the doors open for whites.  Therein lies the unending problem with films like this.         

More conventional and much easier to digest, audiences that would never watch a Spike Lee film might find themselves venturing into this one.  Nonetheless, despite the galling reality that Shirley’s complicated life story is largely told from the point of view of an avowed white racist with a 6th grade education, which is deemed acceptable in Hollywood’s view of America, it must be said that this particular script, despite its well documented faults, is actually pretty good, because by the end of the tour the overall effect of their time together has a stunning power of transformation for each individual, with both remaining lifelong friends, which comes across quite profoundly here and adds to the overall appreciation of the film.  Very few films actually overcome all the collective racist baggage that comes with a project like this, but because of the power of the two performances, and just how well each of them comes to life onscreen, it would not at all be surprising for each to be seen embracing the other after what they went through together.  Flawed as it is, this film still gets to the heart of why these men mean so much to each other, and ultimately to us, despite their distinctly different backgrounds, and a lot of that is what they bring to the picture, as these two immensely appealing individuals are not like what we typically see onscreen.  While it may be true that the racist figure is humanized onscreen and given a larger-than-life platform no ordinary chauffeur would deserve, but as the film suggests, with Shirley contending no one plays Chopin like he does, well this is no ordinary chauffeur either.  The reason behind both contentions makes all the difference in the world, as by the end the audience agrees that these are two extraordinary men, like few others we’ve ever met in our lifetimes.  Sometimes cinema gets it right, allowing audiences to expand the breadth of their vision by catching a glimpse into different cultures and characters, and whether the process to bring this film to light is racially insensitive and socially unjust, the end product may still carry a potent message.  Strange but true.  Part of the reason this works is how warmhearted most of the central figures actually appear to be, despite their human flaws, as the journey allows them to overcome obstacles along the way, some violent and disturbing, but others hidden underneath the surface, where it’s the good intentions that matter.  The Farrelly brothers, makers of subversive mainstream comedies, have always included underlying messages about outsider figures with physical or emotional defects where they are part of what’s essential about their films, making empathy towards those who are different part of their core values.  That definitely comes across in a film like this, as viewers relate strongly to each of the developed characters, including Tony Lip’s wife, Delores (Linda Cardellini), who loves her big lunk, where the humor and affection she displays is part of a supporting family circle that resembles many Italian families where food is at the center of their social activities.  One can accurately say that no one in the history of cinema enjoys eating quite like Tony Lip, who wins a hot dog eating contest, earning a quick buck, but eats for the pure joy of it.  While on the road with Shirley, the maestro tells Tony that he should become a food critic, as it’s quite apparent throughout this is at the top of his reasons for living.  It’s also one of the reasons he’s so relatable with viewers, as he’s a typical wiseguy right out of the Scorsese Italian school of cinema, where the real Tony Lip played a prominent role in Goodfellas (1990) while later appearing in 11 episodes of The Sopranos (2001 – 2007). 

It’s a good twenty minutes before Don Shirley even appears in this film, instead focusing on Tony Lip’s career at the Copacabana night club, an enforcer known for quickly eliminating problems, using brute force before hauling unwelcome transgressors out of there, viewed as just another day at the job, developing a likable camaraderie with people in the business, seen shooting the breeze with others about work options when the club shuts down for a few months due to remodeling.  It’s something of a surprise when he gets a call for a job interview with some “Doctor,” especially when the address happens to be that of Carnegie Hall.  Until 2009, the studios above the Hall contained working spaces for artists, intentionally designed with very high ceilings, skylights, and large windows making it more conducive for artistic work.  Among those living there at the time was Don Shirley, whose apartment interior resembles that of an art museum, with walls filled with rare collectibles from around the world, kind of his own Xanadu.  Known as Doctor Shirley for his honorary doctoral degrees (speaking eight languages fluently), the two couldn’t come from more different backgrounds, but Shirley needs protection from a professional, a job that doesn’t require degrees but street smarts, and Tony fits the bill, negotiating his own terms and agreeing to the job, though Shirley calls his wife to inquire if being away from the family for two months would be a problem.  Once on the road, Shirley plays piano as part of a jazz trio (the white bassist and cellist followed along in their own car), basically performing in front of some of the richest white patrons in the South, where their innovative sound includes classical style elements, similar to the exploratory music of John Lewis, pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet or the more commercially popular Ramsey Lewis Trio.  At the last minute, Tony is given a copy of the Green Book, which is an annual listing of safe places for blacks to stay on the road in the Jim Crow South, as they weren’t allowed to mix with white company.  Absurdly, though working for Shirley, Tony was allowed to stay anywhere and live like a king, while the artist himself, despite being the headliner, was forbidden to eat, sleep, or share rest rooms with whites.  Almost immediately, Shirley recognizes there are things Tony needs to do to improve himself, from his butchering of the English language to his crude table manners, eating almost everything in sight with his fingers and just stuffing it down.  Much of the film is the playful banter between Shirley and Tony while driving between jobs, where the more outgoing Tony always seems to get on every last nerve of the more withdrawn and quietly reserved Shirley, but the maestro, like Cyrano de Bergerac, is soon intervening on Tony’s written letters home to his wife, reconstructing them so they’re more eloquent and distinguished, becoming the pride of the neighborhood when Delores reads them back to her envious neighbors.  Though they amusingly bicker over minor details, Tony goes to bat for Shirley whenever there’s trouble, which is ordinary and often in this film, as part of Southern Confederate pride/culture is built upon humiliating and degrading blacks, treating them as inferiors, which continually happens with Shirley despite the fact he’s the star of the show and easily more learned and sophisticated than any of the white patrons.  In this manner, the film fits the mold of 60’s films like GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER (1967), where blacks have to be smarter and more qualified than whites in order to be accepted by whites, or IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), one of the first films to introduce brazen acts of bigotry to mainstream audiences, where Southern whites continue to distrust blacks simply out of habit.  In some rural areas of the South they passed sundown laws making it a crime for blacks to be out at night, where simply passing through town after dark was a crime.  Tony’s expertise was put to the test on this trip, where in some instances he got more than he bargained for, learning that in 1956 Nat King Cole was pulled off the stage during a performance in Birmingham, Alabama and beaten by a gang of white supremacists.  One wonders why Shirley puts up with these indignities, as he was the resident artist at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, making plenty of money, but he insisted upon doing a Southern tour, believing that bringing culture to regions deprived of it is the only way to bring change to these backward environments.  As it turns out the same can be said for Tony and his outwardly racist family, where at least on that front, plenty of progress is viewable to audiences, enough to elicit a smile by the time the film closes.          

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