The Green Book is a “feel good” movie that also happens to be a complete lie about race relations in America. It is supposedly the true story of pianist Don Shirley’s 1962 tour of the Deep South where he played for all-White audiences. Fearing for his safety, Don Shirley recruited tough guy Tony “Lip” Vallelonga to be his chauffeur. Though completely opposite personalities, they come to understand and respect each other, leading to a life-long friendship.
Mahershala Ali is perfect as Don Shirley, as is Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip. The action is exciting and well filmed, and audiences leave the theater feeling uplifted. However, The Green Book has been widely criticized by African Americans, especially Spike Lee, because Hollywood’s portrayal of the 1962 tour does not match what really happened. Here is a list of the major flaws with The Green Book.
Don Shirley was not playing for White Audiences in the South. It was a tour of historically African American colleges in the South and the audiences were African American. The whole scene of Shirley playing for rich White folks in a private home and then being told he could not use the bathroom never happened. It was a pivotal plot point in The Green Book but was a complete Hollywood fabrication.
Don Shirley was not estranged from his family. He had a close relationship with his siblings, nephews and nieces his entire life. Writers Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), Peter Farrelly and Brian Currie are all White. They did not contact Shirley’s family while making The Green Book. Nick Vallelonga has openly admitted that he did not even know that any of Don Shirley’s family still existed. Instead, The Green Book portrays Don Shirley as a lonely, isolated man who is “saved” by being invited to dinner with the Vallelonga family. In fact, some members of Don Shirley’s family actually attended many of his concerts in the South.
The Green Book pretends that racial profiling by police officers only happens in the South. The Green Book has several scenes where Don and Tony are roughed up by Southern policemen who seem to automatically hate all African Americans or Italians. Then when they are returning home, as soon as they cross the Mason-Dixon Line the police become friendly helpers. A police officer points out that their rear tire is flat, and then stays with them to direct traffic around the car in a raging blizzard. Following the logic of The Green Book, relations between the police and the African American community in the Northern city of Chicago must be excellent.
The Green Book gives the impression that racial tensions are somehow relegated to the past. After all, the Deep South no longer has legalized segregation and even the police forces are now integrated. Most people today don’t even realize that there actually was something called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a guide to what hotels and dining establishments African American’s were allowed to use in the South. The fact that this legalized racism no longer exists makes audiences feel good about how much progress has been made. Spike Lee has stated that The Green Book gives a false sense of progress, and is a feel-good movie on race relations designed for an old audience. Spike Lee may have a point. At the theater where we saw The Green Book, the average age of the audience was about 67.
The Green Book is a “White Savior” Story. Tony Lip has to teach Don Shirley how to stand up for himself and be tough. Time after time in The Green Book, Tony saves Don from problems brought about by Don’s timid nature, or his own stupidity of going places without bringing Tony along to protect him. This is repeated so often in the film that you begin to wonder how Don Shirley actually survived in the world before he met his White Protector. Hollywood has a long history of making “White Savior” films. These include The Blind Side, Dangerous Minds, and even To Kill a Mockingbird. The mark of a White Savior movie is that its focus is about how heroic the White person is to be helping the unfortunate African American who would be lost without the savior. The main star is the White character, with the African Americans playing only supporting roles.
This may be a little bit of a hard judgment for The Green Book. After all, Don Shirley is portrayed as being immensely more talented, educated and literate than Tony Lip. In fact, the most amusing parts of The Green Book are when Don Shirley helps the almost illiterate Tony write beautiful love letters to Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). Don Shirley’s letters are so elaborate and romantic that Dolores begins reading them to her jealous friends.
Overall, The Green Book is an enjoyable film to watch, but don’t fool yourself into believing that you are seeing an actual portrayal of history. We can’t help thinking that it would have been so much better if the writers had taken the time to fully research the events and get input from Don Shirley’s family. It is true that despite their different backgrounds Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga did become lifelong friends. It would be fascinating to know what really happened when the toured the Deep South 57 years ago.
- We give The Green Book 3 Stars ***
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