Thursday, January 10, 2019


On the most superficial level, GREEN BOOK (the story of a "black" pianist recording star being chauffeured through the segregated South of 1962 on a concert tour), is a  "feel-good" romantic comedy (the romance being a bromance between Viggo Mortensen's driver Tony Lip (Vallelonga) and Mahershala Ali's pianist Don Shirley), with lots of comic dialogue, and character and scenic exaggeration. If you view it that way, the movie's almost perfect (thanks to the outstanding cast led by the aforementioned stars and to the comedy director/write Peter Farrelly).

Crack the surface though, and you have some folks objecting to the perspective being Vallelonga's (though really the story is framed by his son Nick's memories and tapes of his father's recollections) rather than Shirley's (who was considered a musical genius by some contemporaries). And that alone distorts the reality of what Shirley endured and overcame as a "black" "gay" classically trained pianist in the South in 1962, which pisses off a lot of activists for racial justice and truth.

But I have lots of African-American and Italian-American friends who love the movie. And others who object to the stereotypes of the Italian-American "goomba" (as they used to say) or the major "black" character's behavior and attitudes being viewed from a "white" perspective. Shirley's family claims the portrait of Shirley the movie presents is false. And I can back that up, as I knew the man.

When my second oldest brother Jimmy (who the family called "Buddy") got home from WWII he decided to go to Catholic U in DC on The GI Bill to study music. He met Don Shirley there and they became friends and sometimes played together (my brother was "a reed man" mostly playing clarinet and sax, though he could play almost any instrument).

So right there the movie as reality fails, because it posits the film character Shirley as being totally naive about the segregated South even though DC after the war WAS the segregated South, and the suburbs surrounding it in Virginia and Maryland even more so. But my brother and Shirley and their friend Al Rossi (and I'm sure other returning WWII vets) were dismissive of segregation.

My brother married an Italian-American woman from DC in 1949, which scandalized our Irish-American clan at the time, so that probably influenced his attitude, I remember on our family's first trip to DC in '48 when I was six to meet his fiancé's family, he drove us past the main hotel for "blacks" with a huge lit-up sign on it's roof saying "THE WHITE LAW HOTEL." He wanted us to see how messed up legal segregation was and how folks found ways to object.

A few years later, my brother told me a story about Don putting on a woman's kerchief (I don't remember about the rest of his outfit, but the image of Don in a kerchief stuck with me) and the two of them getting on a segregated bus (or was it trolley then?) in DC and causing a commotion with their display of (fake) interracial dating.

I started playing piano at four and was pretty good as a kid playing classical and popular tunes and have a memory of playing for Don (which is what I remember he told me to call him) and him making me feel appreciated. Though I didn't reciprocate when in my late teens I saw Don play with his trio and bought his albums. At the time I only listened to "progressive" jazz and found all other music inferior, including Don's pop (to my ear at the time) styling of classical and jazz and pop songs.

The movie emphasizes the extreme differences between the two main characters, so only Tony can be loose and intentionally, outlandishly funny, while its version of Shirley is uptight and dry and aloof. The plot needs that contrast to have an arc for the characters and a reason for the film, otherwise it's just (as Shirley's family posits) the story of a "black" music star hiring a "white" driver for a concert tour (for a year by the way, not the two months the movie makes it for obvious dramatic reasons).

There is a reason Tony remembered this job, not only did he claim it changed his attitudes about race, but also it was a unique experience for him to work as a chauffeur (and bodyguard) for a "black" star. In his world that was an anomaly. Shirley's family insists it wasn't in Don's world, and thus for them the focus on this trip is overblown in relation to Shirley's life story.

Though I had a hundred quibbles with the supposed factual historic details (I was stationed in the military in legally segregated South Carolina when Shirley was on that tour with Tony and I played in "black" clubs, some of which were like the "black" roadhouse depicted in the film, but others were as fancy as any "white" establishments, same for the "black" hotels), I got immediately that the movie was a comic confection inspired by one man's experience (Tony Vallelonga) and it's impact on his son, and enjoyed it with the caveat that its version of Don Shirley was not the man I'd interacted with.

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