Writer/director Peter Farrell has succeeded in weaving humor, tenderness, and righteous indignation into this dramatic tale based on the real-life experiences of Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley.
Tony Lip, a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a Black classical pianist, from Manhattan to the Deep South. Normally, a road trip that could be described as pleasant, this particular journey is fraught with danger.
In the early 1960s, segregation was still very evident, especially in the Southern states. To survive and thrive, Tony and Dr. Shirley must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to “safe” establishments for African-Americans.
At the start of the film, Dr. Shirley struggles to establish boundaries while Tony talks non-stop and displays a ferocious appetite that must be constantly satisfied. When Dr. Shirley asks for quiet time, Tony pauses momentarily and then launches into another monologue. The two men are polar opposites who would never have connected under normal circumstances.
Meal times bring out their differences. One of my favorite scenes involves Tony’s delight at discovering Kentucky Fried Chicken in the state of Kentucky. At first revolted by the food, Dr. Shirley slowly acquires a taste for it and then follows Tony’s example, tossing the bones out the car window.
Over the eight-week trip, a friendship develops between the brash, extroverted bouncer who is well-grounded in his life and the lonely musician who is still searching to find himself. At one point in the film, Dr. Shirley laments: “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough; what am I?”
Racist attitudes intensify as the duo travels into hostile territory, where the laws vary from state to state. In one city, Dr. Shirley is not allowed to eat in the hall dining room filled with patrons who had paid to watch his performance later in the evening. A clerk in an upscale establishment would not allow Dr. Shirley to try on a suit he planned to buy.
I was unnerved by one scene where Dr. Shirley ventures out on his own and ends up in a precarious situation, involving another white man and two policemen. Tony intervenes and persuades the officers to release Dr. Shirley. The following day, Tony reassures Dr. Shirley: “I know it’s a complicated world.”
Mahershala Ali delivers a superb performance as Dr. Shirley. Having already won Best Supporting Actor awards at the Golden Globes and SAG ceremonies, he is a shoo-in for the Oscar.
Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the tough, uncouth bouncer is spot-on. He has mastered all the nuances of the character and provides much of the comedic relief. He has received three Best Actor nominations: Golden Globes, SAG, and Oscar.
Photos of the actual men in the closing credits add to the authenticity of this larger-than-life film. Their friendship lasted until their deaths in 2013; Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga died within months of each other.
An extraordinary film that will linger in consciousness.