The movie "Green Book," which is based on a real story, is receiving all sorts of good press — both from critics and from regular moviegoers. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I try to explain why:
It’s hardly surprising that film fans might make comparisons between the movies “Green Book” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
The former, just released, is based on the true story of a white man driving a black concert pianist on a concert tour of the American South during the early 1960s. The latter is an award-winning 1989 film, based on an Alfred Uhry stage play, about a black man, beginning in the late 1940s, acting as chauffeur and caretaker of an elderly white woman.
To reference an old saw, these films represent the two sides of the same coin – the denomination of which, in this case, is racism.
Both are, at their respective bases, melodrama: the kind of work that depends more on exaggeration and emotional manipulation than on a project’s essential strengths, whether of narrative, of character or both.
There is, though, often a fine line between mere melodrama and something a bit closer to, say, Shakespeare. The four Academy Awards earned by “Driving Miss Daisy” – including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (for Jessica Tandy) – and the Oscar-nominated performance of Morgan Freeman, are a clear measure of that film’s quality.
And while the Oscar nominations for 2018 won’t be announced until Jan. 22nd, the two lead actors of “Green Book” – Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen –are already being mentioned in pre-awards prognostications.
Directed by Peter Farrelly – better known for such comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” – “Green Book” is based on an original screenplay co-written by Farrelly, screenwriter Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga – the son of the character played by Mortensen.
Vallelonga’s father was also known as Tony “Lip” because, he claimed, he could talk anybody into doing anything. And Tony Lip, who was raised in the Bronx borough of New York in the 1930s and ’40s, was a true man of his time. Meaning that, among other things, he had no use for African-Americans.
Don Shirley, on the other hand, was unique. A talented concert pianist, he lived an isolated and private life, partly because of temperament and partly for reasons – not to give anything away – that the movie makes clear.
Both men, though, began to change in 1962 when Shirley hired Vallelonga to be his driver and protector on a prolonged concert tour through states where segregation laws were firmly enforced. At some of their stops, Vallelonga would have to refer to what was known as the Negro Motorist Green Book, which outline where blacks could legally, and safely, eat and stay overnight – and from which Farrelly’s movie takes its name.
While much of what occurs in “Green Book” seems convenient – Shirley’s helping Vallelonga write letters to his wife, Vallelonga punching a surly Southern police officer, Shirley attending Christmas dinner in the Vallelonga home – screenwriter Nick Vallelonga insists the stories are true.
And regardless, the actors – Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2017 for “Moonlight,” and the twice-nominated Mortensen – make them feel true.
Which is precisely what a film needs to elevate it from mere melodrama to something closer to actual art.