“Driving while black” is no 21st century curse. Since the earliest days of the motor car black American drivers have faced oppression. At petrol stations, restaurants, resorts and motels white supremacy has reigned.
Thus Harlem postal worker Victor Hugo Green compiled a guidebook in 1936 so that “the negro motorist” could “vacation without aggravation”. It was unknown beyond black families and ceased publication in 1966.
Precociously talented black concert pianist Don Shirley faced the same shit. A multi-linguist with three PhDs he was commonly known as Doc. He lived most of his life above New York City’s prestigious Carnegie Hall in a glorious apartment.
Yet like his friend Eunice Waymon (better known as Nina Simone) he was rebuffed by the conservatoires. Equal-but-separate practices ruled even this most refined level of society. Doc wanted to play Chopin like Arthur Rubinstein but was often packaged as a black Liberace to play jazzier pieces.
In autumn 1962 his record company bankrolled a tour through mostly Confederate states. Doc needed three things. The first was Green’s book. The company gave him a car but he needed a driver doubling as troubleshooter.
Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony the Lip, worked in the same town as Doc but lived a life a world away. He was senior bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub from an Italian family in the Bronx. Needing work when the club closed for renovations he got word of Doc’s needs. Tony surprisingly succeeded at interview.
This relationship is the basis of a literal journey of discovery that director Peter Farelley and writer Paul Vallelonga (Tony’s son) have woven into an engrossing character-driven story.
Doc is cool, elegant, articulate, well connected and above all dignified. He rides in the back with a blanket across his legs. He has no idea who Little Richard or Chubby Checker are and disdains fried chicken.
Tony is brash, uncouth, garrulous, instinctive; thinking only with his heart and fists. His lessons were learned in the army, on the street and in his racist family.
The narrative arc proceeds to reveal two of Doc’s risky foibles that Tony deals with kindly. Tony rapidly improves his understanding of Jim Crow at work as he drives through unfamiliar landscapes outside New York, and stops using his foulest vocabulary.
A core tension between these guys becomes mainly about class. It is a shame therefore that the film’s final act is dramatically flat and schmaltzy.
This is a serious yet funny tale for our times. Green Book has the same kind of positively liberal drive as Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) or Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004).
Surviving members of Don Shirley’s family have challenged the film’s historic accuracy. It does seem strange that the writers apparently failed to consult them in preparing their script. But Green Book only claims to be based on the real characters.
The key point of this film is that racial divisions need not be a barrier to social justice and communal respect.