Its sensitive and highly charged subject matter is handled with humour and care, but the true heart of the story is the warmth and generosity of the two leading characters.
Set in America’s deep south in the 1960s, 'Green Book' tells the tale of a road trip undertaken by two men; one an uneducated Italian-American hired for his muscle, the other a highly educated African-American pianist. The film stars Mahershala Ali as the musical virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen as his driver Tony Lip. The titular book refers to a guide for 'travelling while black', a Lonely Planet-esque reference for motels and diners for black people during America’s Jim Crow era or racial segregation. This period may not be so well-known to Australian audiences, and the routine humiliation faced by Dr Shirley is shocking, even more so for being very much based in fact.
The performances are powerful and transcendent, so it is no surprise that Mahershala has already secured a Golden Globe for his performance, and there is Oscar buzz for Viggo. Indeed, the Danish-American actor is completely transformed by his turn as an under-educated bouncer from the Bronx. He is utterly believable, from his pudgy gut to his humour, sticky fingers and short-temper, but his Tony never descends into farce.
As a counter, the impeccable Dr Shirley keeps a gilded apartment above Carnegie Hall, complete with a butler, monstrous ivory tusks and a throne. He speaks multiple languages, has never eaten fried chicken, travels with his legs firmly secured under a plush blanket and has a Kennedy on speed dial. The fried chicken virginity is notable, as it signals alienation from what 'his people' are supposed to like, do and how he is supposed to act, not only according to Tony but according to many of the wealthy white grandees who host them along the way.
Dr Shirley is alienated not only from a white society who consider him beneath them – as the film illustrates in several excruciating scenes – but also from black culture. He yearns to play classical music, and has never listened to the popular African-American musicians of the time, including Little Richie and Aretha Franklin. His otherness is further compounded by his sexuality, as revealed, but not lingered on, in the film.
While 'Green Book' could have been tackled with a heavy hand, the movie is surprisingly peppered with humour, and so is highly enjoyable with several laugh-out-loud moments. Mahershala Ali’s acting is simply a joy, and that the film is a passion project for the writers and director is clear to see. It is written and produced by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, and the love of his father and long-time family friend Don Shirley shines through.