Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

Advertisements

Moonlight

Kish and I are continuing our quest to watch the Academy Award Best Picture nominees.  On Sunday we screened Moonlight at the Drexel, and I was still thinking about the movie hours later, amidst all of the Super Bowl hoopla.  It’s the kind of film that worms its way into your guts and sticks around, forcing you to think about it.

moonlight-posterMoonlight tells the three-part story of a quiet little boy — known variously as “Little,” Chiron, and “Black” — who grows up in a poor, drug-infested part of Miami.  His father is long gone, and his mother is on a downhill slide into drugs.  He’s relentlessly bullied by other kids, his mother (beautifully played by best supporting actress nominee Naomie Harris) smokes crack, brings strange men into their apartment, takes his money, and plays all kinds of mind games with him, and he’s just fending for himself and clinging to a really terrible life.  He’s got no chance for a safe, secure, “normal” existence.  It’s a brutal tale to watch, and I ended up feeling as sorry for this young man as I’ve ever felt for any movie character in any film I’ve ever watched.  The actors who play this character as a boy and a teenager — Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders — are flat-out brilliant.

But even amidst the terrible reality on the mean streets of Miami, the young man encounters kindness.  A drug dealer named Juan (played by best supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali) befriends him, feeds him, and waits out his silence.  (The scene where Juan teaches “Little” to swim — and to trust another person, just a bit — is a beautiful little vignette.)  A young woman gives him a safe place to stay whenever his mother orders him out of the house.  And he makes a connection with a classmate that turns out to be a lasting one.  But those few happy moments are overwhelmed by the horror, and fear, and routine betrayal that are a part of this kid’s everyday experience.

By the time we get to the third segment of the movie, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is grown, has moved to Atlanta, and has become a hardass drug dealer with gold teeth inserts.  When an unexpected phone call brings him back to Miami, to see his mother and interact with his past, what will he find?  We just desperately want something good to happen to this wounded person who really never had a chance.  We get only a partial answer, and we leave the theater wondering:  what will the rest of this young man’s life be like?

Even a few days later, I still wonder.  How many movies have that kind of staying power?