WHO WOULD YOU hire to be there for you, as you embark on a concert tour where you will be performing to an audience of the most hostile community possible? Pianist and composer Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) had an eye out for the meanest most streetwise racist thug he could find and Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian from the Bronx fitted the bill like a glove. That’s the basic premise that starts Green Book, arguably one of this year’s strongest Oscar contenders. From the moment the deal between the two is sealed, the adventure begins.
But it’s not as simple as all that. The pall of crude racist values underpins everything. Shirley was black. He was also a piano prodigy. Born in 1927, he started learning the instrument at the age of two. Trained in Russia and the States, he was an extraordinary pianistic force with a wide ranging intellectual career and the facility to switch between music genres with the flick of a wrist. He composed variations based on the myth of Orpheus and the Underworld and a tone poem based on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, among other works, and was a personal friend of American politician Robert F. Kennedy.
Deeply attuned to the racist realities and harsh contradictions stitching together the world in which he was living, by the early 1960s, Shirley was at the peak of his career, and embarked on a concert tour through America’s deep south, in an initiative to hold a mirror to society’s rude contradictions.
It’s a compelling tale beautifully told from the get-go. Cast with wisdom and an empathetic eye into the Bronx Italian community with all its crassness, racism and love, it evokes stories such as those told in Driving Miss Daisy, and the more recent Irish film The Journey. Tony and Dr Shirley do a lot more mileage than the turquoise Cadillac can muster: it’s mileage which has to do with finding yourself, realigning priorities and growing. From both sides. And the give and take between Mortensen and Ali is simply electric and utterly human.
The work is also a carefully crafted period piece replete with its gorgeous cars and director Peter Farrelly shows a very fine understanding of colour in the construction of shots, the landscape and how the infernal Green Book – an official guide for negro road travellers in that time and place – interweaves values. For South African audiences, in particular, this work will ring uncomfortable cringeworthy bells about the revolting racist rhetoric which pops out in common parlance, in the mouths of both skanky hillbillies and otherwise upright citizens.
The tale, one of loneliness and understanding the hatred of strangers, is predictable, down to the Christmas dinner at its conclusion, but you forgive this immediately, in this smooth flowing, witty and tragic no holds barred foray into the ugliness and beauty of human behaviour, when it’s subject to tests of bias and music. It’s uniformly tightly rendered, keeping you focused with careful clarity. And there’s a moment of Chopin on a humble upright piano in a negro speakeasy that will haunt you forever.
- Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly and features a cast headed by Mahershala Ali, David An, Gralen Bryant Banks, Martin Bats Bradford, Billy Breed, Lindsay Brice, Kermit Burns III, PJ Byrne, Linda Cardellini, Leslie Castay, Mike Cerrone, Joe Cortese, Brian Hayes Currie, Jon Michael Davis, Ninja N Devoe, Craig DiFrancia, Don DiPetta, Brian Distance, Quinn Duffy, Suehyla El-Attar, James Evermore, Ron Flagge, Gavin Lyle Foley, Peter Gabb, Hudson Galloway, Randal Gonzalez, Daniel Greene, Dennis W Hall, Mike Hatton, Ted Huckabee, Seth Hurwitz, Kenneth Israel, David Kallaway, Jim Klock, Sharon Landry, Jenna Laurenzo, Von Lewis, Sam Malone, Anthony Mangano, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D Marinov, Floyd Miles, Montrel Miller, Viggo Mortensen, Ricky Muse, Maggie Nixon, Shane Partlow, Dane Rhodes, Gertrud Sigle, Christina Simpkins, David Simpson, Geraldine Singer, Paul Sloan, Jon Sortland, Derrick Spears, Don Stark, Brian Stepanek, Harrison Stone, Iqbal Theba, Frank Vallelonga, Nick Vallelonga, Rodolfo Vallelonga, Louis Venere, Tom Virtue and Johnny Williams. It is written by Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga. Produced by Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Charles B Wessler, it features creative input by Kris Bowers (music), Sean Porter (cinematography), Patrick J Don Vito (editing), Rick Montgomery (casting), Tim Galvin (production design) and Betsy Heimann (costumes). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: February 15, 2019.