Odd couples are seeds for great stories. If you squint a little to see it The Green Book is more than a mismatched road trip pairing of black and white, gay and straight, talent and ignorance. It is the best man on man love story of the awards season
Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a street smart opportunist Italian American but not a criminal in his own mind. He hides, rather than steals, a hat so that he can return it and ingratiate himself with its gangster owner. He pockets a fallen rock from a gem store because, to his morals, it is fair game on the pebbled floor. But he determinedly refuses the opportunity to work for the local mob even though it would double his bouncers pay
Dr Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a black man of extraordinary musical talent in a world of white privilege. One of the treats of the movies is the sublime piano playing. He is out of place, closeted yet composed, in an imperfect world. When he says “If I am not black enough, or white enough, or married enough then what am I?” The answer is that he is the embodiment of dignity. Seen first in a fastidious robe perched on a throne he appears to be weighing up Frank. It turns out he is the tireless boy who always did his homework. He has already decided that Frank is the muscle he needs as a black man doing a concert tour in the segregated deep south.
Frank lives in the social stew of NYC racism where neighbours will come around to stand guard rather than leave a white housewife at home with black workmen. It is as racist as the institutionalized racism of the South that slices at Dr Shirley from all directions. Dr Shirley is refused lodgings, service in a restaurant, the chance to try on a suit before buying it, and the use of the rest room in the main house. He is beaten and belittled. The Green Book (for Negro Motorists) of the title was a travel accommodation listing that helped black travelers navigate the segregated landscape with safety rather than dignity.
The hard road has its lessons. Frank’s mind is opened to his own racism by the cruelty played out before him. Dr Shirley learns that his dignity does not have to be paid for in distance from other people.
The joy of this movie is that they learn to love each other. Frank is straight and married. There is nothing sexual between the men. Frank does not have a sad unrequited secret longing for Dr Shirley. Or vice versa. It is the unintended growing appreciation of their differences that makes it quite the best man on man love story in some time. It is an uplifting and satisfying movie wrapped in a painful tale. By the end of this road trip be ready to say, like Dr Shirley says to Frank’s wife “Thank you for letting me share your husband”
Review by Andrew Hebden
Queerguru Correspondent Andrew Hebden is a Media & Cultural Studies graduate spending his career between London, Beijing and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.