This wasn’t what I expected – and, whilst it wasn’t the best film ever, it asked some very interesting questions. I thought, given the title, that it was all going to be about someone’s experiences of racism, but it went beyond that, and also explored the issues of not fitting the expectations, both external and internal, of a particular demographic group, and trying to cope when you end up feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere. Even now, never mind in the 1960s, society isn’t set up for individuals. That all sounds very deep and meaningful, but the story’s told by way of an old-fashioned, “buddy movie”, two totally different people thrown together and bonding type stuff, not very subtle and sometimes more than a bit cringeworthy, but good for plenty of laughs. It veers from the complex to the crude within seconds, at some points. Incidentally, since when was “dramedy”, which I saw on one website the other week, a word? It sounds like some sort of camel. “Comedy-drama” will do nicely, thank you.
Also, I was stupidly chuffed to discover that Mahershala Ali’s full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz. I’ve never come across that name in real life before. I assume that his parents got it from the Bible, and not from Clover Carr’s poem in What Katy Did At School!
Anyway. This is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga, on an early 1960s concert tour through various states including parts of the racially segregated South. The script was written partly by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, but some people who knew Don Shirley well have apparently questioned its accuracy, especially in terms of the way it shows the two men bonding and becoming friends rather than just being employer and employee. That’s quite complex, because the racial issues of the time make the fact of a black man employing a white man to be his driver/minder a very big thing, but the “buddy movie” light entertainment comedy element of the film relies on them developing a close personal relationship.
I’d love to know how accurate the depictions of the two men, as well as their relationship with each other are, because they both sometimes seem a bit … what’s the word? Overblown? I wouldn’t say pantomime-ish, but certainly a little OTT. Tony is quite a caricature of a working-class NooYoik Italian-American. He never stops talking, works as a bouncer at a nightclub where most of the punters seem to be Mafiosi, and spends the rest of his time with his large and very noisy family. Women in the kitchen, men in front of the telly, but everyone is devoted to each other. They do not mix with anyone who is not Italian-American. He’s also a caricature of a certain type of working-class bloke, commonly found in soap operas and comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, generally. He hits out with his fists before he thinks, swears all the time, eats with his fingers, and, whilst driving the car, smokes, eats, drinks and then throws the rubbish out of the window.
He also throws two glasses in the bin after two black plumbers working at his house drink out of them.
Don, Dr Shirley, is the complete opposite. He’s elegant, cultured and refined. He lives in the most beautiful apartment, full of antiques. He dresses impeccably, his manners are perfect, and his grammar is perfect. However, he’s so uptight and snooty that you want to yell at him to loosen up a bit, especially when he’s lecturing Tony about his speech and his behaviour. Both of them would fit very well into a sitcom, but sitcom characters are supposed to be a bit OTT. Superb performances from both actors, with the scripts they were given, but I think we could have done with a bit more subtlety in the way both men were written.
The rest of the people in this film aren’t exactly subtly portrayed, either. Every white character in the South is a racist. The very first time Dr Shirley sets foot in a bar south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gets beaten up. When he and Tony go into a posh menswear shop, the sales assistant assumes that it’s Tony who wants to try on an expensive suit. Every single person they see, black or white, gawps at the sight of a white guy driving whilst a black guy is sitting in the back. At one point, the car breaks down in a rural area where several black people are working in a field. More like a scene from a cartoon than a scene from a film, every single person stops, tools in hand, to stare when Tony gets out and lifts up the car bonnet. And, everywhere they go, the police are just waiting to arrest them. I’m not saying that this inaccurate, just that it’s a bit heavy-handed to generalise about entire populations of entire regions like that.
However, whilst the film is a bit heavy-handed, the fact of racism in the South in the 1960s is just that – a fact. The title of the film comes from a guidebook, produced annually from 1936 to 1966, for African-American motorists, because of the very common problems of being refused accommodation, or service at restaurants, or even being told that they couldn’t fill up their vehicles at petrol stations. This was going on all the time. A century after emancipation, this was going on all the time.
We don’t actually hear that much about the book, though. We do occasionally see Tony referring to it for suggestions of places to stay, but, otherwise, the impression given is that he and Dr Shirley didn’t bother to read it – which, for the purposes of the film, is a good thing, because it means that the viewer gets to see just how bad things were, because they don’t avoid trouble. They haven’t been going long before they take a wrong turn whilst driving at night, get lost, and are pulled over by two policemen – because a black man is in an area which black people are not allowed to be in after sundown.
A brief historical note here. “Sundown towns” were not particularly a Southern phenomenon. There were many in other parts of the United States too. Nor was it always, or only, black people who were excluded. Some places excluded Jews, Native Americans, Chinese people or Hispanic people. Welcome to the land of the free. In the 1960s. Not the Middle Ages. The 1960s.
Tony punches one of the policemen. Again, this all seems a bit overboard. Maybe it did actually happen, but … would anyone actually do that? But, for the purposes of the film, it has to happen. He and Dr Shirley both end up locked in the only cell at a very small police station. Eventually, the police acknowledge that they’ve got the right to a phone call, so Dr Shirley makes a call … and, the next thing you know, Bobby Kennedy, in his capacity as Attorney General, is ringing this two bit police station to say that the police have got to let them go. Tony thinks that he’s going to be dining out on this story for the rest of his life. Dr Shirley finds the whole thing utterly humiliating. It’s taken away his dignity.
That’s probably the biggest point that the film makes about racism – that it strips Dr Shirley of his dignity. For all his talent, his education, the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the racist attitudes with which he’s confronted keep challenging his dignity. He may have the class to appreciate an elegant suit, and the money to afford it, but the manager of the shop won’t even let him try it on. He’s denied admission to hotels, restaurants and even toilets. Maybe the title “Green Book” doesn’t really work, because the idea of the Green Book is to enable people to avoid situations where they’re likely to face awkwardness and trouble. Obviously no-one should have to think like that, and people should be able to go where they want, but, even now, you see comments in guidebooks saying that, for example, women travelling alone would be well advised to avoid a particular place. Tony and Dr Shirley keep running into trouble.
The next time Dr Shirley ends up being arrested isn’t actually about race: it’s because he’s been caught in a sexual encounter with another man. Tony bribes the police to let him go. Again, Dr Shirley is upset at having had to resort to underhand tactics to get out of the situation, but, as Tony points out, it would be very awkward for him, in the climate of the 1960s, if this arrest became known publicly. It’s already been mentioned that Dr Shirley had been married to a woman, although he’s now divorced, so we’ve previously got the impression that he’s heterosexual. In an emotional conversation with Tony afterwards, he says that he doesn’t feel as if he’s accepted anywhere. It seems that he’s referring to sexuality, as well as race, but the subject of sexuality’s never mentioned again, so we don’t really know exactly what’s going on. I don’t really know why the scriptwriters put that in if they weren’t going to develop it properly.
Tony, on the other hand, is happy and secure within his world. He hasn’t got much money, and he’s got no qualifications, and his manners are appalling, but he knows exactly who he is and where he belongs. He’s part of a big working-class Italian American New York extended family, within a working-class Italian American New York community. He’s happily married. Part of the “bonding process” is that he writes terrible letters to his wife, Dr Shirley dictates romantic letters for him to write instead, and his wife is thrilled – even though she knows very well that someone must have helped him with them. But he and his wife and their children are all very happy together. And they’re part of a big network of relatives and friends, all of whom are working-class Italian-American New Yorkers. He’s fine with that. He doesn’t particularly want to learn about different things, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to what might be considered a more cultured lifestyle, or a more multicultural lifestyle.
Do you ever think that it might be easier to be like that? Maybe by the 1960s, things were starting to change, but, before that, a lot of people never moved out of the communities in which they grew up, and never mixed with different people. Whilst doing some family history research, I found that, on one side, my great-great-grandparents had lived next-door-but-two to each other. Not quite marrying the boy/girl next door, but as near as makes no difference. There are still people whose lives aren’t too far removed from that. Is it tragic, that their lives are so narrow? Or is it easier to be like that? And, once you’re out of that sort of set-up, you can’t really go back.
We know very little about Dr Shirley’s background, so it does feel as if some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing. He’s very far removed from the stereotype of what a black man in the US in the 1960s should be, but what we don’t know is whether he was brought up like that or whether he’s distanced himself from that. There’s a mention of a brother whom he doesn’t speak to – although apparently that isn’t true, and he got on perfectly well with his brother. We don’t meet any of his relatives, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends who aren’t connected with his work. Whether it was the way he was brought up or whether it was his own choice, or just the way his life panned out, he’s completely detached from “black culture”.
He’s barely even heard of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t recognise their music when it comes on over the car radio. He doesn’t eat fried chicken – which is quite a motif of the film: people keep going on about fried chicken. Food is such a big part of culture. People who’ve become detached from a cultural group, or even people whose parents or grandparents became detached from a cultural group, will often still eat the food associated with it. And, in 1960s America, it’s still expected that part of the experience of being black is to grow up in poverty. At one point, Tony says that he’s blacker than Dr Shirley is, because he does live in a working-class neighbourhood. Dr Shirley doesn’t disagree.
And, for all his success, he’s deeply unhappy. And, because of that, he drinks. And it’s because he feels that he doesn’t belong.
It all sounds so ridiculous, this idea that, in order to belong, you have to conform to cultural norms. Surely that’s the most prejudiced thing of all. And yet that’s how it is, even now. And it’s coming as much from people inside a particular community as from people outside it. More, if anything. There are so many films and TV programmes and comedy acts which play on stereotypes of particular groups, and most of that is coming from people within those groups. Fair enough, as long as no-one’s getting offended by it? But doesn’t it just make harder and harder for the people within those communities who don’t fit those stereotypes?
That word “community” – it gets used in so many ways, these days. People talk about “the black community” or “the Islamic community” or “the LGBT community” as if everyone who fits that particular demographic is somehow supposed to have the same beliefs and outlook and interests. You’re talking about millions of completely different people, living different lives, in different areas. And yet, all the time, you get political commentators saying that a particular party’s trying to appeal to the X community, or has lost support amongst the Y community. Or else it’s retailers trying to appeal to the A community or the B community. As if you’re supposed to vote the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes, as everyone who’s from the same ethnic group or religion or part of the country as you, or is of the same sexuality, or even the same gender. And then you get people claiming to be spokesmen/women for that community, as if they can somehow represent all these millions of different people.
It’s actually getting worse. We’ve now got this “cultural appropriation” thing going on, as if you aren’t even allowed to sing particular music or make particular food or wear particular clothing unless you’ve got a personal connection to the demographic group from which it originates. What is that about? And people are accused of betrayal if they have a partner from a different demographic group, or express views which aren’t those which people from their ethnic or religious background are “supposed” to have.
Everyone wants to belong.
Or do they?
Dr Shirley doesn’t want not to be seen as black. He’s not trying to get away from being black, just from the idea that black people have to be a certain way. He’s actually one of the people who sees himself as being a standard bearer for a particular group, because the reason he’s touring the South is to try to change people’s attitudes, to overcome the stereotypes of what a black person is like. One of the other musicians explains this to Tony, who’s struggling to understand why this very talented man, who can get as many well-paid gigs as he likes in places where he’s treated with the respect he deserves, is putting himself through all this unpleasantness. He thinks he can take on the attitudes of racists in the South, and change their minds. And it would have been great if that was the way things had gone, but it wasn’t.
At one concert, which was meant to be in North Carolina but was actually filmed at the beautiful Houmas House plantation in Louisiana, which I’ve visited, he’s welcomed by the host and hostess and their guests, and sits down at the dinner table with them – even though they do serve up friend chicken – but, when he asks to use the toilet, he’s told that he’ll have to use a grotty outhouse: the proper gents’ toilets are only for white men. He says that he’s not using the outhouse and, if they won’t let him use the other toilets, the second half of the concert will have to be delayed whilst he goes all the way back to his hotel, uses the toilet there, and comes all the way back. The host agrees. We’re left thinking how absolutely ridiculous the host’s attitude is, but we’re also left wondering why Dr Shirley doesn’t just tell him exactly where he can shove both his piano and his toilets. Tony says that, if anyone treated him like that, he’d use their luxury carpet as a toilet.
Dr Shirley says that what matters is to be dignified.
However, in order for the film to work, either someone’s going to have to give in and accept that they’re in the wrong, or he’s going to have to snap and say that he’s had enough. Attitudes are, sadly, not going to be changed by a concert tour, so Dr Shirley has to decide that he’s not taking any more – and, of course, this happens at the last concert of the tour.
It’s in a posh club, on Christmas Eve. Tony, Dr Shirley and the other musicians want to have a meal at the club’s restaurant before the concert, but the restaurant is whites-only and, despite the fact that all the white people in the restaurant are only at the club because they’ve come to hear him play, Dr Shirley is not allowed in. He’s told that either he should eat somewhere else, or that some food can be brought out to him in the miniscule dressing room. Enough’s enough, and he walks out. He and Tony go to a bar where Tony is the only white person in the place. And he plays the piano there. Mostly jazz music.
And then, after this grand denouement, after he’s finally had enough, after he’s accepted that what he’s tried to do hasn’t worked, after he’s stood up for himself – and done it in an immeasurably dignified way, rather than walloping someone as Tony would have done – the film suddenly turns into one of those warm fuzzy Christmas films that get repeated on the Sky Christmas channel all the way through December.
Will Tony make it home in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife, his kids, and their enormous extended family? As head north, it starts snowing heavily. They can hardly see for more than a few inches in front of them. And then they’re pulled over by a policeman. Oh no! Are our heroes going to spend Christmas Day in the cells? Fear not. This policeman just wants to tell them that they’ve got a flat tyre. Tony changes it. They drive on. But Tony’s tired. He really can’t drive any further. So Dr Shirley takes over. And they make it back to New York City just as Tony’s lovely wife Dolores is dishing up. Hooray! And Dr Shirley is invited into join them. Bless! Everyone hugs and kisses. Merry Christmas!
I suppose they wanted a happy ending, and that was the only way of doing it. The tour didn’t change people’s attitudes. Dr Shirley didn’t find inner peace and a sense of belonging. But we got our happy Christmas dinner scene. A bit of a non sequitur, but, hey, why not? We don’t have to fit films into pigeon holes as being comedies or dramas, or being buddy movies or films about racism or films about angst or anything else. This film doesn’t really fit into any one standard category. It’s just itself. And people should be able to be just themselves, but the world doesn’t work like that, and it can be very hard if you don’t fit in. There are better films than this about the evils of racism, but this one’s a bit different, and, whilst it’s got its faults, it’s got plenty to say, and all of that is well worth listening to.