The Green Book was birthed from tragic necessity.
For 30 years, The Negro Motorist Green Book guided black travelers through segregated America. In an era when many hotels and restaurants refused to serve or shelter African Americans (particularly, but not entirely, in the South), the Green Book was designed (as the book itself said) to give “the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”
But the Green Book can’t do it alone. On the trip that Dr. Don Shirley’s planning, it’ll help to have a little muscle.
It’s 1962, and Shirley is one of the world’s most accomplished pianists. He gave his first public concert at age 3. He played with the Boston Pops at 18. He’s earned three doctorates (in music, psychology and the liturgical arts), knows eight languages and plays music like no one else.
He’s also black, about to embark on a concert tour through the Deep South.
He’s got fans down there; plenty of them. But while they’ll pay to hear him—stand and cheer for him—they won’t let him sleep in their beds or eat at their tables or use their restrooms. Tradition, they’ll say. It’s just not done, as they block the door to the bathroom and point to the outhouse out back.
Shirley knows all this, of course. He still insists on going, but he’s not naive.
So he’s bringing along a driver—a rough-hewn nightclub bouncer named Tony Vallelonga, more commonly known as Tony Lip. Shirley hires Tony at $125 a week, plus expenses. For that, Tony’s supposed to keep the car on the road, keep to the schedule and keep an eye on the Green Book. Easy enough, right?
But both know that Tony’ll be expected to keep Shirley safe, too. And Green Book or not, that won’t be easy.
Shirley’s swing through the South wasn’t mandated by the record company. We learn that the pianist could make three times as much touring far more friendly confines. For him, the tour is all about challenging and changing some entrenched attitudes in these segregated states—giving people a glimpse at a wildly accomplished, impeccably erudite black man and pushing back on centuries of racism. Shirley wants to challenge those attitudes as politely, but as firmly, as he can. As his traveling cellist tells Tony, “Genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”
First on the list: Tony Lip himself. And it’s not just Tony’s racial attitudes that Shirley challenges: It’s what it means to be a good, thoughtful citizen. When Tony pockets a souvenir from the parking lot of a roadside shop, Shirley insists that he pay for it or put it back. When Tony flings a paper cup out of the car window, Shirley makes him, stop, back up and retrieve the litter. Shirley encourages Tony to improve his diction, too. And while it’s unclear whether any of these suggested improvements ever take deep root in Tony’s character, he’s deeply impressed by the man who suggests them.
But change is a two-way street, and the driver winds up changing Shirley, too. Tony introduces the tightly wound piano player to the joys of off-the-bone fried chicken and encourages him to loosen up. He becomes not just a confidante and admirer, but a friend—something all too rare in Shirley’s well-heeled, solitary life. And when the tour experiences unexpected hiccups—everything from a subpar concert piano to a life-threatening clash at a bar—Tony proves to be both loyal and resourceful (though, admittedly, not all of his strategies can earn an unqualified hip, hip, hooray from Plugged In).
A couple more notes: Shirley is reluctant to take Tony away from his wife and two sons for eight weeks, and Shirley calls his wife, Dolores, for her blessing. But, perhaps surprisingly, Tony’s bond with Dolores actually gets stronger while he’s away. Tony dutifully writes to her every chance he gets, and soon Shirley begins to help—serving as Tony’s own Cyrano de Bergerac. The letters turn poetically romantic, and back home Dolores reads them out loud to her friends and sisters-in-law—spawning a great deal of letter envy among them.
When Tony is offered a job by some local mobsters—a job Tony could use—he turns down the offer and instead pawns his watch to make ends meet.
Tony is a profane man from a religious family—one with crosses on the walls and one that says grace before every meal. One of Shirley’s doctorates is in “liturgical studies,” which suggests at least a passing familiarity with church. (The real Don Shirley often played spirituals and Gospel songs, and he released a whole Gospel album after the events depicted in the movie.) We hear a reference to “God’s green earth,” and someone says, “God bless.”
When Tony tells Shirley that his wife bought an album of his—something about “Orphans” with little kids on the cover—Shirley corrects him. The album’s title is actually Orpheus & the Underworld, and the “children” on the cover are actually “demons in the bowels of hell.”
During one tour stop, Tony’s called late at night to a local YMCA, where Shirley and another man are handcuffed to some pipes, naked or nearly so. (We don’t see anything critical, and Tony tosses a towel on Shirley before audiences see more than a split-second of his birthday suit.) We learn that Shirley and the other man were engaged in some intimate activity, according to the two police on scene. Tony bribes both officers to let Shirley go and to keep the matter quiet. Later, when Shirley apologizes for his actions that night, Tony shrugs it off. He’s been working New York City nightclubs for a long time now, he says. “I know it’s … a complicated world.”
Shirley mentions that he was married once, but that being married and being a concert pianist were ultimately incompatible.
Tony loves his wife, Dolores, and we see the two get a little frisky in bed, kissing and cuddling and laughing. But Tony can’t wait to go to Pittsburgh, because he’s heard women’s breasts grow larger there (he says, using some very crass terms). Later, he tells Shirley that Pittsburgh was consequently something of a disappointment.
Early in the tour, Shirley gets roughed up by a trio of locals at a bar. Tony tries to defuse the situation peacefully, but when one draws a knife and threatens to use it on Shirley, Tony reaches to his back as if grabbing for a gun. The bar’s owner then draws a shotgun and forces the locals to let Shirley go.
Tony has other violent altercations at times—including punching a policeman in the face when the racist officer insults Shirley and compares Tony’s own Italian background to being black. (Both he and Shirley are thrown in jail.) While working as a bouncer (or, as he says, in “public relations”) for a fancy New York dinner club, he tosses out someone affiliated with a prominent mobster gang and then pounds the guy’s face in. (The owner of the club, a rival mobster, soon after offers Tony a job in his syndicate doing, the boss darkly suggests, “things.” Tony turns him down.)
A concert workman fails to get Shirley a Steinway to play for one of his concerts. (And even the one he procures is filled with trash.) When Tony protests on Shirley’s behalf, the workman refuses to help—using one or two racial slurs while he’s at it—and Tony cuffs him in the ear. Later that evening, we see that Shirley got his Steinway.
Someone points and fires a gun.
Two f-words and about two dozen s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “t-t,” “p-ss,” “pr–k” and “crap,” along with “n—er” and other racial slurs. God’s name is paired with “d–n” nearly 15 times, and Jesus’ name is abused about five times.
Shirley says that he has little regard for jazz or lounge pianists who play with a glass of whiskey on the piano. He insists it’s impossible to get respect that way.
But that doesn’t mean that Shirley doesn’t drink—and heavily—when he’s not at the piano. His concert rider requires a bottle of Cutty Sark whiskey at each stop, where he spends his evenings drinking alone. “Sometimes he gets sad,” Tony writes one day. “That’s why he drinks too much.”
Tony smokes, which sometimes drives Shirley a little crazy. We see others light up cigarettes as well. Shirley and Tony sometimes find themselves at bars or nightclubs, and we see plenty of alcohol being consumed by patrons at such establishments.
Green Book, obviously, depicts lots of negative racial attitudes—from hostile racist rednecks to the more genteel racism of some of Shirley’s well-heeled fans. They love the idea of someone like Shirley but still don’t want him sharing their restaurants or bathrooms.
Even Tony himself doesn’t think much of blacks himself before he takes Shirley’s job—tossing away a couple of glasses that two black workmen had used instead of simply washing them. (The movie doesn’t condone any of these racist leanings, of course, but audiences still see them.)
Tony gambles with some other chauffeurs at Shirley’s first concert stop. (Shirley’s embarrassed by Tony’s gambling, but Tony’s just happy that he won.) Tony swipes a rock from a giftshop parking lot (one that clearly isn’t meant to be taken) and grouses when Shirley tries to make him put it back. He litters, too.
Black and white.
At its most basic, black and white is all about contrast. No fashion is as bold as a black-and-white dress, no interior design as brash as white carpet against black walls. When we say something is black or white, we’re telling the world that nothing could be more obvious: We have black-and-white choices, black-and-white moral convictions. Some of us are said to see the world in terms of black and white.
I wonder sometimes whether that very language invites a certain oversimplification when it comes to race.
For some—the stereotypical racists we’ve seen throughout history (and in many a movie)—the races are as separate as black type on white paper. In many places in the 1960s, predominantly in the South, the idea of racial integration seemed an impossibility. The corrosive doctrine of “separate but equal” reigned.
Most of us know better today, of course. But even now, we risk stereotyping those who are different—whether those differences are racial, economic, religious or political. We sometimes still sort those differences based on nothing more than a handful of presuppositions.
Green Book takes such racial stereotypes, balls ’em up and throws ’em out the window. Don Shirley is a genius who feels just as alienated from his own race as he does from Tony’s. And even though Tony’s skin tone is just right for the 1960s South, his ethnicity is all wrong, and he suffers some of the same slights and slings that Shirley does. Together, they lead modern audiences through a dialogue about race relations then and now, even as the characters themselves have their own racial suppositions challenged.
Green Book is engaging, funny, moving and even inspiring. It reminds us that race relations are never just black and white: The complexities and subtleties could cover a color wheel.
But for families, some of the choices the movie makes are decidedly off-color. The language, period-appropriate or not, can be pretty rough. And the movie’s decision—without any historical grounding that I can find—to send Shirley into a one-night homosexual stand gives this film another content concern to consider.
But perhaps it’s strangely fitting that we can’t give Green Book a definitive yay or nay, a definite black-or-white verdict. It, like the world it portrays, is complex and sometimes difficult. But it still has something worthwhile to say.
For more ideas on how to have the “courage to change people’s hearts” regarding bigotry and prejudice, check out the following resources:
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.