My friend Marian Westbrook and I ventured out into the cold recently to see a new film, “Green Book” without realizing beforehand just how much we would learn about the importance of language, friendship, and genius in the person of Dr. Donald Shirley, a classical and jazz pianist born in 1927 who was never able to achieve his dream of being an accepted classical performer because of being a black man.
The time of the film, 1962, and the initial setting in New York establish the backdrop for the Italian family, the Vallelongas, including the husband Tony (“the Lip” because he could talk his way out of any fix), his wife Dolores, their two boys, and assorted other uncles, aunts, cousins, and parents. Tony, a bouncer at the Copacabana, needs work when the nightclub closes for renovations. He learns about an opening for a driver for Dr. Shirley and interviews with him in the apartment Shirley lives in above Carnegie Hall. Tony is visibly impressed by the furnishings and art objects he sees, gifts to Dr. Shirley from admirers all over the world.
Viggo Mortenson, acquiring 40-50 extra pounds to play the role of Tony Vallelonga, perfectly captures the accent and mannerisms of one born and reared in the Bronx, uneducated, familiar with pawn shops when money is tight, and shrewd in the ways of the world he inhabits. Tony contrasts with Dr. Shirley, a child prodigy who at age 9 went to the Leningrad Conservatory of Music where he was invited to study music theory. He speaks several languages and has two doctorate degrees in music and psychology. The actor Mahershala Ali portrays the real-life Dr. Shirley as an elegant, dignified, proud, brilliant artist constrained by his skin color.
Dr. Shirley, under contract with his record company to undertake a tour, realizes Tony might be the right person as driver and bodyguard through parts of the country where a black performer might not be welcome despite his invitation to entertain at wealthy people’s homes and concert halls from Indiana to Alabama. A record company representative gives Tony a guidebook, the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” first published in 1936 by Victor Green and his wife of Harlem, to assure black people safe places to stay as they travel.
Director Peter Farrelly said in an interview his goals in the film were to make people aware of this guidebook and of “sundown” towns — areas of the country where black people could be arrested if they were on the streets after sundown. These towns existed in states at least as far north as Pennsylvania as well as in the South.
Tony, bidding his wife Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini) goodbye for two months with a promise to write, sets out on the journey with Dr. Shirley. The actual trip took two years, but it is condensed in the film so that Tony can return home on Christmas Eve. The two men, so different, discover an admiration and respect for each other in their common integrity and honor. Dr. Shirley helps Tony transform his mundane ramblings in his letters to Dolores into love letters; he assists Tony with his diction, having him pass the miles by reciting tongue twisters like “Betty bought a bit of butter,” and he makes Tony replace a rock that fell from a display at a roadside stand (though Tony palms it anyway). After Tony stops at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky, he convinces Dr. Shirley to try some fried chicken and dispose of the bones by throwing them out the window.
The two men talk about race, and Tony sees the unfairness of the “rules” that try to make his brilliant companion less than he is — the rundown motels, the exclusion from “whites-only” establishments, the patronizing of the white social set Dr. Shirley entertains, and the treatment from law enforcement who arrest the pair when an officer calls Tony a slur word and is slugged for his affront.
The real Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga told their story to Tony’s son Nick who wanted it to become the film. The only caveat from Shirley was that Nick wait until after Shirley’s death to tell the story. The film’s scene when Tony pays off police officers to release Dr. Shirley from handcuffs after he and another man are discovered in the shower at the YMCA may be the reason for the timing: to preserve Shirley’s privacy. In the film, Dr. Shirley apologizes to Tony for his action, but Tony responds, “I’ve worked in nightclubs all over New York City; I know life is complicated.”
Don Shirley was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to an Episcopal priest and a teacher, his mother, who taught him piano. He grew up in Pensacola, Florida, giving his first public performance at age 3. After his stay in Russia, he studied music at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and debuted on the concert stage at age 18 with Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor.” A few years later, a manager who helped launch Marian Anderson, Sol Hurok, told Shirley that the classical music world would never accept a black pianist.
Abandoning his dream, he became an academic until the early 1950s when he was awarded a grant to study potential relationships between music and juvenile crime. He experimented with sound to show how tonal combinations affected audiences. This work led him to return to music as a career, playing with Duke Ellington, whose “Piano Concerto” Shirley performed at Carnegie Hall in 1955. His career bloomed after he appeared on the “Arthur Godfrey Show” and soloed with many orchestras. Also a composer, Shirley wrote three symphonies and many other musical works. His “Variations on Orpheus in the Underworld” makes for a comic moment in the film.
The film is many things — a “buddy” movie, a road trip film, a Christmas movie — but most of all it shows us how communication is key to our understanding of each other despite class, skin color, and personality. It is the key to love.
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to email@example.com.