‘Green Book’: New holiday film tackles racial identity

This past Friday, I was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening and discussion of the upcoming film “Green Book” at the East Brook Mall, organized by Kayla Sinkevitch, University of Connecticut Residential Associate and Universal Studios employee.

Directed by Peter Farrelly, “Green Book” tells the true story of the friendship between pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, both played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viggo Mortensen (“The Lord of the Rings”), respectively. The plot centers around Shirley’s 1962 musical tour of the Deep South, where he encounters increasingly callous incidents of racial discrimination, which cause Vallelonga to reevaluate his own racial biases.

The main highlights of the film are easily the performances by Ali and Mortensen. The opening of the film drags, but once the two of them are on the road together, it picks up in strides. Their interactions feel real, as both men struggle to interact due to their wildly different backgrounds: Shirley a wealthy, polished, black musician and Vallelonga a poor, slovenly, Italian bouncer. Despite the film’s serious subject matter, many of their scenes are hilarious and a few had the whole theater in stitches.

The film’s soundtrack is fantastic, bringing together a blend of 60s R&B, jazz and classical styles. The arrangements played by Shirley in the film are astounding, proving he was well-deserving of his reputation as one of America’s greatest pianists.

Still, the movie was not without its imperfections. The plot, especially toward the end, was fairly predictable and at times the film was a bit too schmaltzy. While these moments are cliché, they hardly hold the film back.

The racist incidents in the film were handled well, highlighting not only the disgusting injustice of the situations, but also the utter nonsense of such a system. Vallelonga is constantly shocked that Shirley is denied the same respect as white patrons even in venues where he has been hired to play as the main event, while Shirley seems all too used to this sort of treatment.

After the screening was over, there was a brief discussion of the film led by UConn Psychology and African American Studies Professor Bede Agocha. Agocha broke down many of the historical elements of the film, providing a deeper understanding of certain characters and events to place the film in greater context.

“His family was of Jamaican extract, so he didn’t feel like he fully understood everything that was happening to African Americans in the US,” Agocha said of Shirley’s backstory. “That’s why he talked about not feeling fully accepted by the black community [or] the white community.”

“He really was a piano virtuoso and could play almost anything by ear,” Agocha said of the real Shirley’s musical career. “He could hear Chopin and play it. He literally was a child prodigy and really did study, was classically trained... I like that they actually added that little bit where he seemed to imitate Little Richard on the piano. That was actually kind of cool because that’s one of the things he was famous for. He could almost just by ear hear something once and play it.”

Agocha even went into the origin of the film’s title, a travel book for African American motorists used during the Jim Crow era. While the film briefly touched on the significance of green books, Agocha went into much more detail.

“It got its name, even though they were in fact green books, from a postal worker and sort of freelancing journalist named Victor Hugo Green,” Agocha said. “[These books were] the difference between driving all night, which was dangerous, or potentially going to an establishment where you might not come out of it in one piece… He used his connections in the postal service to actually organize it and mail it around to people.”

“What they did was play down some of the violence,” Agocha said of the film’s inaccuracies. “You probably wouldn’t have had enough time to talk yourself out of most situations. It would just get violent very quickly… If anything, the artistic license was to not focus on the extremes.”

A few of the students also commented on their impressions of the film. Talitha Nascimento discussed her thoughts on the way the film portrayed privilege.

“A lot of people right now who are not engaged in politics or activism… remove themselves from political discussions because… they don’t want to talk about it, but I think that’s extremely important…” Nascimento said. “There [are] people who actually have to experience that, and there’s people who just kind of ignore that because it doesn’t affect them.”

For anyone looking for a movie to watch over the holiday break, you can’t go wrong with “Green Book.” It’s entertaining, meaningful, impactful and is great for generating conversation.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.