Green Book (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Peter Farrelly|
|Music by||Kris Bowers|
|Edited by||Patrick J. Don Vito|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$27.7 million|
Green Book is a 2018 American comedy-drama film about a tour of the Deep South in the 1960s by African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who served as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the screenplay was written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga, based on interviews with his father and Shirley, as well as letters his father wrote to his mother. The film is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century guidebook for African-American travelers, written by Victor Hugo Green to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.
Green Book had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, where it won the People’s Choice Award. It was theatrically released in the United States on November 16, 2018, by Universal Pictures. The film received positive reviews from critics, with Ali and Mortensen’s performances being lauded, and was chosen by the National Board of Review as the best film of 2018, as well as one of the Top 10 by the American Film Institute. The film has received numerous award nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the 76th Golden Globe Awards.
New York City bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga is searching for new employment after his nightclub is closed for renovations, eventually landing an interview as a driver for “Doc” Don Shirley, a famed pianist. Their first encounter does not go well, as Tony’s flippant, uncultured behavior clashes with Don’s sophisticated, reserved demeanor. However, Don eventually hires Tony on the strength of others’ word, as he needs someone who can help him stay out of trouble during an eight-week concert tour through the Deep South. They embark with plans to return home on Christmas Eve. Tony is given a copy of the Green Book by Don’s record studio: a guide for black travelers to find safe havens throughout the segregated South.
They begin the tour in the Midwest before eventually heading further south. Tony and Don clash over their differences, as Tony feels uncomfortable being asked to act properly, while Don is disgusted by Tony’s habits. Regardless, Tony finds himself impressed with Don’s talent on the piano, and increasingly disgusted by the discriminatory treatment the latter receives by the hosts when he is not on stage. After a bar incident leads to a group of white men threatening Don’s life, Tony rescues him by threatening to pull a gun on them. He instructs Don not to go out without him for the rest of the tour.
Throughout the journey, Tony writes letters to his wife and kids. Don coaches him to write more beautiful prose, which deeply moves Tony’s wife. Tony encourages Don to get in touch with his own estranged brother, but Don is hesitant, observing that he has become isolated by his professional life and achievements.
After Don is found in a gay encounter with a white man at a YMCA pool, Tony bribes the officers to prevent the musician’s arrest. Don is upset that Tony “rewarded” the officers for their treatment. Later, the two are arrested after a police officer pulls them over late at night in a sundown town. When the cop insults Tony, he punches him, and they are taken in. While they are incarcerated, Don asks to call his “lawyer”, and uses the opportunity to reach Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who orders the governor to release them.
Things come to a head when, on the night of the final performance on tour in Birmingham, Alabama, Don is refused entry into the whites-only dining room of the hotel venue. Tony threatens the owner, and Don refuses to play since they refuse to serve him in the room with his audience. He and Tony then go to a predominantly black blues club where Don rouses the crowd with his music.
Tony and Don head back north late at night in a snowstorm to try to make it home by Christmas Eve. They are pulled over by a police officer in the North, who tells them they have a flat tire. Don takes over driving duty when Tony gets too tired, and they make it in time for Tony’s family dinner, to which he invites Don. The latter returns to his own place, but ends up going to Tony’s, where he is welcomed by all after a brief silence. In a last passage, photos of the two men are shown, and their long friendship is recounted.
- Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga
- Mahershala Ali as “Doc” Don Shirley
- Linda Cardellini as Dolores Vallelonga
- Dimeter Marinov as Oleg
- Mike Hatton as George
- Iqbal Theba as Amit
- Sebastian Maniscalco as Johnny Venere
- P.J. Byrne as Record Executive Producer
- Montrel Miller as Birmingham Hotel Waiter
- Tom Virtue as Morgan Anderson
- Dennis W. Hall as Wise Guy Mags
- Randal Gonzalez as Gorman
- Maggie Nixon as Coat Check Girl
- Brian Distance as Macon Cop #2
Viggo Mortensen began negotiations to star in the film in May 2017, and put on 40–50 pounds for the role. Peter Farrelly was set to direct, from a screenplay written by Nick Vallelonga (Tony Lip’s son), Brian Hayes Currie, and himself.
On November 30, 2017, the lead cast was set, with Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini and Iqbal Theba confirmed to star. Production began that week in New Orleans. Sebastian Maniscalco was announced as part of the cast in January 2018.
Green Book began a limited release in the United States, in 20 cities, on November 16, 2018, and expanded wide on November 21, 2018. The film was previously scheduled to begin its release on the 21st.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2018. It also opened the 29th New Orleans Film Festival on October 17, 2018, screened at AFI Fest on November 9, 2018 and was programmed as the surprise film at the BFI London Film Festival.
Green Book made $312,000 from 25 theaters in its opening weekend, an average of $12,480 per venue, which Deadline Hollywood called “not good at all”, although TheWrap said it was a “successful start,” and noted strong word-of-mouth would likely help it going into its wide release. The film had its wide expansion alongside the openings of Ralph Breaks the Internet, Robin Hood and Creed II, and was projected to gross around $7–9 million over the five-day weekend, November 21 to November 25. It made $908,000 on its first day of wide release and $1 million on its second. It grossed $5.4 million over the three-day weekend (and $7.4 million over the five), finishing ninth. Deadline wrote that the opening was “far from where [it needed] to be to be considered a success,” and that strong audience word of mouth and impending award nominations would be needed in order to help the film develop box office legs. Rival studios argued that Universal went too wide too fast (going from 25 theaters to 1,063 in less than a week).
In its second weekend the film made $3.9 million, falling just 29% and leading some industry insiders to think the film could leg out to $50 million during awards season. In its third weekend of wide release, following its Golden Globe nominations, it dropped 0% and again made $3.9 million, then made $2.8 million the following weekend.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 82% based on 201 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. The website’s critical consensus reads, “Green Book takes audiences on a surprisingly smooth ride through potentially bumpy subject matter, fueled by Peter Farrelly’s deft touch and a pair of well-matched leads.” On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 70 out of 100, based on 46 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “A+” on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it an 85% positive score and an 80% “definite recommend”.
Writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle praised Ali and Mortensen and said: “…there’s something so deeply right about this movie, so true to the time depicted and so welcome in this moment; so light in its touch, so properly respectful of its characters, and so big in its spirit, that the movie acquires a glow. It achieves that glow slowly, but by the middle and certainly by the end, it’s there, the sense of something magical happening, on screen and within the audience.” Steve Pond of TheWrap wrote, “The movie gets darker as the journey goes further South, and as the myriad indignities and humiliations mount. But our investment in the characters rarely flags, thanks to Mortensen and Ali and a director who is interested in cleanly and efficiently delivering a story worth hearing.”
Mortensen use of the N-word
A controversy developed on November 7, 2018 after Mortensen said the word “nigger” as part of a panel discussion to promote the film. Mortensen prefaced the sentence with “I don’t like saying this word” and went on to compare dialogue “that’s no longer common in conversation” to the period in which the film is set. The next day Mortensen said:
“Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”
Depiction of Shirley
Family members of Donald Shirley condemned the film, saying they were not contacted by the film’s representatives until after the making of the film and that it misrepresented Shirley’s relations with his family. Maurice Shirley (Don’s brother) said,
“My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend’; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”
In response, Mahershala Ali, who portrayed Shirley in the film, reached out to the family, saying to Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III in a phone call, “If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.” Writer-director Peter Farrelly said in an interview he was under the impression that there “weren’t a lot of family members” of Shirley still living, although claimed they did not take major liberties with the story and that those relatives he was aware of had been invited to a friends and family screening of the film.
Monique Judge, a columnist for The Root, claimed the film was historically inaccurate in its portrayal of the Jim Crow South, writing:
“It is definitely problematic in that it seems to gloss over the true horrors of the Jim Crow South and just how bad it was for blacks who traveled through and lived there. We never get to see Mahershala Ali, who does a splendid and regal turn as Dr. Shirley, display that gripping fear that black people feel even today whenever they drive down those dark country roads at night—let alone in 1962, when the film is set. The potential dangers they face are never addressed in the film. Instead, Ali’s Shirley sits comfortably in the backseat…”
On the other hand, jazz artist Quincy Jones said to a crowd after a screening:
“I hope that you all enjoyed this very special film about friendship and the power of music to bring people together. I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the ’50s, and he was without question one of America’s greatest pianists … as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn. … So it is wonderful that his story is finally being told and celebrated. Mahershala, you did an absolutely fantastic job playing him, and I think yours and Viggo’s performances will go down as one of the great friendships captured on film.”
He also said:
I did that ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ tour through the South when I was with the Lionel Hampton band, and let me tell you … it was no picnic. And we were a band. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do it alone with just a driver. So Peter, thank you for telling this story of our country’s not-so-distant history and capturing on film the ties that can bind us when we spend time listening, talking and living with one another.”
The film has received numerous award nominations. In addition to winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018,  Green Book was nominated for 5 Golden Globe awards for the the 76th annual ceremony, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. The National Board of Review awarded it the award of Best Film, and it was also recognized as one of the Top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute.