By Green Power, I mean good power. Green is the color of a traffic light that tells us to go. Green was the color of a guide called the “Green Book,” a publication that helped the “Negro traveler” avoid difficulties when searching for motels, food and gas in the Jim Crow South. It was published continuously for thirty years, beginning in 1936 and ending just after the Civil Rights and Voting Acts became law. The movie GREEN BOOK recently took home three Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Screenplay. It’s an audience crowd-pleaser based on a true story, a film that many critics have liked or loved but some have criticized for being cliché or predictable, even while acknowledging the exceptional performances of the two leads.
I saw the film with friends in a crowded theater, and we, too, left loving the film, enjoying a natural high from the performances, the music, and the story of an unlikely friendship. In these politically divisive times, it’s no small matter to leave a theater in good spirits–surrounded by strangers in good spirits–especially when the engine driving the story is fueled by racism and the tense race relations between whites and blacks in 1962, only a few years before our federal government passed two laws to try to right the injustices.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the film:
Dr. Don Shirley is a world-class black musician, and he’s in need of a chauffeur/bodyguard to drive him on an eight-week tour through parts of the Midwest and Deep South. Shirley is a star. Highly educated, he trained as a classical pianist but found fame as the head of a jazz trio. His record company has booked all the venues and rented him a new Cadillac, but Shirley gets to pick the driver, and he picks Tony Lip (real surname: Vallelonga). Tony is a bouncer at the Copacabana but needs temporary work while the nightclub is closed for renovations. Shirley lives alone in an elegant apartment above Carnegie Hall and speaks with precise diction. Tony lives in the Bronx with his wife and two sons, surrounded by a close-knit clan of Italian relatives. He’s a devoted family guy, but the kind of guy who throws out the drinking glasses used by the two black men who’ve come to fix something in his kitchen. (His wife had offered them lemonade.)
And so begins this Odd Couple road trip. The other two men in Shirley’s jazz trio are white, and they drive themselves in a separate car. They don’t need a “Green Book,” but Tony and “the Doc” do, especially when navigating the Deep South. There are incidents, dangers and indignities along the way, and the climactic scene near the end of the film takes place at a country club in Birmingham, Alabama, a city where singer Nat King Cole was attacked and injured in 1956 while performing at a concert. Tony learns this from the two white musicians while having dinner in the club’s dining room. Shirley tries to join them before his performance in that same room, but he is denied permission to eat with the white folks. This time, however, he may not turn the other cheek.
My mother was a big fan of Nat King Cole and his velvety voice. His Christmas Album is still one of my favorites, a CD that I play every year. Before seeing GREEN BOOK, I had no idea that Cole had been attacked by six white men while performing at a municipal auditorium in front of an all-white crowd of 4,000 people. According to the news reports, he didn’t finish the concert and came out to apologize. He also said, “I just came here to entertain you. I thought that was what you wanted. I was born in Alabama.” The crowd gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. He was treated by a doctor and later that night performed at the same auditorium in front of an all-black audience as planned, in observance of Birmingham’s segregation laws. Nat King Cole was 37 at the time and already a big star. That same year he became the first African-American to host a network variety show, but it was cancelled after one season because few sponsors were willing to be associated with a black entertainer. This is the green power of an artist. When Congress and the President finally signed the Civil Rights and Voting Acts into law, they must have been thinking in part about all the black singers, musicians and actors who’d been entertaining us so tirelessly and so well, and who, in turn, we’d been treating like second-class citizens or worse.
During their drive through the Deep South, Shirley and Tony Lip get stopped one night for being in violation of the “sundown law.” Tony ends up punching the cop and they’re thrown in jail. Shirley keeps demanding to be allowed to make his one phone call, which is his right, and eventually they let him. The men are released. Shirley had called the attorney general of the United States, who in turn called the Governor of the state that had thrown them in jail. Shirley knew Robert Kennedy because he’d performed twice at the White House. Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, was one of the film’s screenwriters. He’d grown up with that story and many more, and he wanted to share them. Nick told TIME Magazine that Shirley had encouraged him, but he’d told him to wait until after he was dead. Both Tony and Shirley died in 2013 within a few months of one another. They remained friends until the end. Nick has said that the road trip changed his father. Before the trip, his dad was prejudiced. After the trip, he taught his sons that all people are equal.
This is the power of art–in this case a film. This story has a feel good ending, but I dare say most people leave the theater thinking we still have a problem with race relations in this country. Why is that? And what can we do about it? Near the end of the film, Tony learns that it was Shirley’s decision to travel to the Deep South, not the record company’s. He asks one of the white men in the jazz trio why Shirley would embark on such a treacherous and painful venture, and this is what he was told:
“Genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” –Oleg, the cellist in Don Shirley’s jazz trio