Peter Farrelly’s The Green Book poses a challenging question: what do 2 unlikely road companions possibly have to teach each other? A lot … even about friendship and love. But, with all their obvious differences, it’s an emotionally rocky road trip to get there. One of the 2 is Dr. Donald Shirley, a classically trained sought-after Black pianist, isolated in his castle on top of Carnegie Hall. A lonely man with 3 doctorates; who had to sell out (& play pop instead of Chopin) to get to the top of anyone’s list. The other, Tony Lip, a crude-not-so-educated Italian bouncer from the Copacabana. A man with a huge family, a wife & 2 kids; a big crusted-over heart; who knows something about love; just not (yet) love for people unlike him.
Well, the pianist needs a driver. Italian bouncer is out of work. They need each other more than either knows. You see, both lack a mirror into hidden parts of themselves. And, when they’re stuck in a car together for 8 weeks, like it or not, they become those mirrors by default.
Mirrors & Sort-Of-Willing Travel Companions
It happens on their road trip. Thrust together, by choice & necessity, Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) are not so different from the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit.
“Hell is other people,” Sartre writes. Sound strange? It’s not. You see, Sartre’s characters go to hell; a small room without mirrors. And, their cell-mates are forced to become the missing mirrors; to parts of themselves, they’ve been unwilling to face.
Sure, this could be hell. Or, it just might be a saving grace. It was definitely both for Don Shirley and Tony Lip. But, instead of a trip with “no exit,” their journey is a ticket out of the hellish states of mind they each live in.
But … that’s the end of our story. Let’s start with where The Green Book begins.
Dr. Shirley Needs A Driver (Not Just Any Driver)
Dr. Donald Shirley, pianist virtuoso, needs a driver, but not just any driver. Mostly he needs a bodyguard; a protector; for his precarious concert tour into the deep South. It’s the 1960’s and Bobby Rydell is singing at the Copacabana. That’s where Tony Lip works, at least until it closes for renovation. JFK is President and, with his Attorney General brother Bobby Kennedy, is trying to change the world. Not an easy task when the world is as complicated as it is.
It’s still Jim Crow time. The South with its plantations, slaves, and segregation is a dangerous place for Blacks – still called Negroes, or worse, Niggers. There are sundown towns; more deplorable than segregation (which means separate toilets; separate entrances; separate places on the bus; and restaurants where Blacks are not allowed to eat; even one in which Dr. Shirley is booked and expected to perform.) But, in sundown towns, violence against Blacks, out after dark, is encouraged & condoned.
So, despite his degrees and culture, Dr. Don Shirley is in as much danger as any ordinary Black man. So, Dr. Shirley’s record company gives him The Negro Motorist’s Green Book (Traveling While Black). To keep him on his toes where Blacks are still less than second class citizens.
Yet, this Green Book is nowhere near enough. More than any book, he needs Tony Lip. And, negotiating a contract is going to be on Tony’s terms; at least at first. Yes, The Green Book contains warnings and advice about very real dangers. But soon; other “dangers” crop up.
Those dangers, that is; that 2 polar opposite men mirror to each other, as they become tightly bound together travel companions; from New York City and back again.
Tony Lip The Bouncer (Now Driver)
Tony (last name Vallelonga; too hard to pronounce) “Lip;” adopted from a nickname long ago. Because Tony thinks nothing about giving anyone “lip,” even if brings on a fistfight. He’s a bruiser; a hard-ass man; tough on the outside; a bullshit artist to the max. He takes pride in that. Yes, he’s Dr. Shirley’s man.
But, let’s get something else straight from the outset. Tony’s a softy at his core. He loves his wife; his kids; his large extended family. He’s just grown up on the streets; taking “nothing from no one.” He’s a bit crusty around the edges. He’s had to be. It’s safer that way.
Plus, Tony sticks to his own kind. He’s not just a little racist. But, really, Tony Lip won’t bow down to anyone; or do anything “beneath” him. And, when he goes on an interview with this strange Dr. Shirley, he certainly won’t be a personal assistant or a valet or someone who launders clothes. He makes that crystal clear: “Good luck, doc.”
“Your name came up several times. You’ve impressed several people with your ability to handle trouble,” Don Shirley replies. Yes, Tony Lip can handle trouble. And, Dr. Shirley sort of respects Tony’s brash, aggressive, confidence.
Anyway, if Dr. Shirley wants him, Tony’ll set him straight: “No butler, a buck and a quarter a week (instead of the $100 offered). Or hire that little guy and see how far he gets with you in the deep South. Because: there will be trouble.”
Tony waits; for the refined Dr. Don Shirley to see the light of day.
Dr. Don Shirley The Erudite Pianist
Dr. Shirley wants to hire Tony Lip. Yet, he’s a man with incomparable manners. He calls Delores (Linda Cardellini), Tony’s wife, for permission to take her husband for 8 weeks. Crying, she tells Tony to write every day (awkward for a man who doesn’t openly show feeling). She lovingly threatens: “you better be home by Christmas or don’t come home at all.”
A kind man; Don Shirley will be sure of that. But, walls come in many forms. His reserve; refinement; even politeness; are also used to keep people at a distance. He can be hurt. He isn’t overtly crusty in the ways Tony is, but Dr. Shirley has his own well-crafted shell.
Two men who “couldn’t care less about the other;” couldn’t be more distant or alienated if they tried, get ready to leave. Don Shirley settles into the back seat of his 1962 Turquoise Caddy, with a lap blanket drawn over his legs. After all, it’s October. An autumn chill’s already set in. He waits for Tony to take his place behind the wheel.
Tony, with his own airs, refuses to lift Dr. Shirley’s suitcases into the trunk (and makes the pianist’s Pakistani valet do the dirty work). Hands-on the wheel, he opens one of the sandwiches Delores made for both men. Ignoring his passenger, Tony quickly scarfs down his and then the other; the one carefully labeled, “Dr. Shirley.”
Anyway, Dr. Shirley won’t easily allow himself to want anything; even if offered. And, yes, Tony has an appetite. He’s as voracious (if not, ill-mannered) about life as Dr. Shirley is not. There’s a lot to learn from Tony about giving in to hungers. On this journey, Dr. Shirley will mirror parts of Tony, too. Will the walls come down? Change can be as scary as dangers of the deep South.
Tony Teaches Dr. Shirley A Thing Or 2 About Life
Tony feeds Dr. Shirley’s hidden hungers. At least he tries; pressuring him into the “messiness” of feeling; into eating greasy Kentucky Fried Chicken (in Kentucky). Dr. Shirley doesn’t want grease on his fingers or his lap blanket. “Seems unsanitary,” he recoils. Tony won’t take no for an answer: “Eat like it’s your last meal.”
Dubious, Dr. Shirley digs in. And, loves it; even “breaks the rules” and tosses the bones out the window, following Tony’s example. Best of all, Don Shirley laughs. Loud. That probably hasn’t happened in a very long time.
And, Tony teaches Dr. Shirley about loosening up; about the feeling that exists in music he doesn’t know about. American soul. Little Richard. Chubby Checker. Aretha Franklin. “How do you not know this music? Come on, doc. These are your people.”
He begins to see why Don Shirley sits alone at night; with only his Cutty Sark. Tony feels and understands Dr. Shirley’s loneliness. Alienated from his brother and from almost everyone: “I step off that stage and I’m just a nigger. Not even accepted by my own people. I’m not like them either. So, if I’m not Black enough or White enough …who am I, what am I?” Yes, that tough Tony Lip is beginning to care.
He does his job well; of protecting Dr. Shirley. Like when he goes out after sundown to get air and a drink in a white bar; gets attacked, roughed up, and threatened with a knife. He reminds Dr. Shirley (even after the police threaten arrest when he’s found naked with a gay white man at the YMCA pool): “I told you not to go anywhere without me.” And, Tony doesn’t judge.
He’s building a bridge out of Don Shirley’s isolated world. And, Dr. Shirley (musical virtuoso and poet in his own right) helps Tony see his way out of embarrassment; about expressing his love in words.
Tony is learning acceptance. Dr. Shirley is learning to trust.
Dr. Shirley Teaches Tony How To Be A Better Man
Despite balking at first, Tony writes Delores every day. Dr. Shirley’s beguiling music has opened Tony to a different kind of beauty (“He plays like Liberace; he’s a genius, I think”). And he lets the music speak to his soul; lets it help him understand and appreciate who Dr. Shirley is beyond his social fears. He writes Delores: “I never knew how beautiful nature is.”
Human nature, too. He’s also talking about breaking through his racism; seeing Dr. Shirley, the man, who struggles. Becoming a friend. Tony’s capable of feeling. But, he doesn’t know how to write. And, Dr. Shirley does.
So, Don Shirley teaches Tony “better diction.” How to write letters to Delores; the language of romance; (“embarrassing”) love. Dr. Shirley dictates the words; a poet/musician at heart; just terrified of opening up to real love himself.
And, he teaches Tony not to be a liar and a petty thief. Well, sort of … since the piece of jade Tony steals becomes a symbol for Dr. Shirley of a freer life; not to be so uptight; to have fun.
Actual stealing may not be okay. But, stealing more from life itself? That’s a necessity. So, we learn that changing attitudes is the name of the game in The Green Book. Much more than the film has to do with any old concert tour through the deep South.
Change Takes Mirrors & Courage
“Genius is not an art. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”
That’s exactly why Don Shirley went on his tour in the first place. Because Nat King Cole, the first “negro” to play in Birmingham in 1956 was pulled off the stage and attacked for playing “white man’s” music.
Well, if you can’t change some people’s hearts in the deep South, you can at least stand up for what’s right and change your own. So, Don Shirley refuses to play his last concert. He refuses to give his art/ his soul/ his music to people that don’t accept him; won’t serve him a meal in the restaurant where he’s expected to perform. “It’s not personal; it’s just the way things are done here,” he’s told.
Well, it is personal. So, he and Tony “get out of there” and go to the Orange Bird – the Black restaurant where the restauranteur tried to send Dr. Shirley alone. Magic happens. Dr. Shirley/the man who didn’t fit anywhere/opens himself up to his own people. He plays Chopin on a shabby piano, not a Steinway, to a standing ovation.
Even better? He stays at the piano and joins the Jazz musicians, easily picking up their beat. He’s a true musician after all; they’re completely in sync. Don Shirley is having fun! He’s letting loose. Something Tony Lip taught him how to do.
It can happen. Tony Lip and Don Shirley change each other’s hearts.
A New World of Acceptance & Love
Don Shirley no longer stands on ceremony, higher up than anyone else out of his fears of being unwanted. This Tony’s given him and he’ll give back to Tony. Leaving the Orange Bird, they head back to NYC in torrential rain. And, when Tony gets too tired to go on; Don Shirley refuses to stop and takes the wheel.
He’s the chauffeur now; they’re partners; no longer holding each other at arm’s length. As Tony sleeps; with the lap blanket covering him; now in the back of the car; Don Shirley drives the rest of the way home. Roles reversed? No, just evened out.
But, Dr. Shirley hasn’t shaken his fears. He refuses Tony’s invitation to meet his family. Back at Carnegie Hall, he’s still just a lonely king – with the stolen piece of jade. A reminder. So, while “Shakespeare” Tony Lip is being welcomed home, Don Shirley takes a risk; and comes out of his sealed-off castle-shell.
With a bottle of wine, he knocks on Tony’s door to a warm family welcome.
What The Green Book Teaches Us
The Green Book teaches us what real friendship takes. The story of classical pianist Donald Shirley and bouncer-later-turned-actor, Frank Anthony Vallelonga, who became life-long friends following their ground-breaking change-making road trip.
So what did Tony Lip teach Dr. Don Shirley, the man with 3 Ph.D.’s? Take a risk. Reach out. You don’t need to be alone. And, Dr. Shirley’s lesson for Tony? Friends come in all packages and colors if you have an open mind.
The only thing you need is a good mirror to closed off parts of who you are and aren’t like Tony and Don were for each other. And, if you have that mirror, let it show you the way. There is a whole world of acceptance, love, and friendship out there; if you can.