Why 'The Green Book' with Its Echoes of Greek Myth, Huckleberry Finn & Cyrano de Bergerac Is a Must See Movie of 2018
One critic calls it Driving Miss Daisy in reverse. But for my money The Green Book goes a lot deeper as it takes a long, hard look at what ails us—and hints at what’s required to heal our national divide. Even though it’s set during the early 1960s before passage of the Civil Rights Act, the movie’s themes could not be more relevant to today.
If you’ve never heard of the actual Green Book, which gives the film its name, you’ll learn during this two-hour excursion that even high-profile African-Americans were not allowed to eat or sleep in “whites only” establishments when they performed in the American Deep South. The film won’t tell you this, but it was a Harlem post-office employee, Victor Green, who published the book. Between 1936 and 1966, the Green Book was the essential guide for black travelers, providing a city-by-city list of restaurants, hotels, and gas stations where you would not be humiliated or harmed.
The film would fail if it all it did was take us back to the bad old days of Jim Crow. It succeeds because it focuses on the transformative relationship between a Tony Soprano-type chauffeur and his refined African-American employer.
The chauffeur (Tony Lip) is the usually dashing Viggo Mortensen, who gained 45 pounds for this role. He’s so far from Lord of the Rings in this flick, you won’t recognize him. In fact, you’ll probably forget you’ve ever seen him in anything else. That’s how convincing he is as a bigoted New York Italian with a wife and two kids.
His black employer, Mahershala Ali, who picked up an Oscar for Moonlight last year, fails as Dr. Don Shirley, the celebrated psychologist, painter, composer, classical and jazz pianist, only to the extent that he doesn’t look very much like the original. Everything else about his performance is spot-on. Dr. Shirley was a complicated, highly educated man, fluent in eight languages, whose refinement made him a lonely outsider except when performing to appreciative audiences all over the country.
This review won’t include specifics because The Green Book is best approached with a blank slate. It’s a feel-good film (ultimately) that nevertheless makes you think.
Be aware, however, that black critics and even Dr. Shirley’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, have complained in Shadow and Act that the film only helps to explain white racism to a white audience. Because it’s Tony’s story, they feel it’s a “white savior” film and a white man’s version of a black man’s life. While this is certainly true enough, the film finds its strength in the thing we’re missing most during this time of divisiveness. There’s no question that Tony “saves” Dr. Shirley. But that’s what he was hired to do. I was more interested in how these two extremely different people came to know and respect one another. The internal journey each man makes adds a meaningful layer to the film’s external road-trip story.
If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn, you might be reminded of the transformational raft trip he takes down the Mississippi River with a black slave named Jim. If you’re familiar with Cyrano de Bergerac, you might find echoes of that classic too.
But if you’ve ever heard of the poet Orpheus from Greek mythology, you’ll want to rush home and listen to Don Shirley’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which he composed in 1956 at the age of 29. It’s on YouTube for the time being. Although it’s not included on the soundtrack, it’s mentioned early in the film and signals what’s to come. Perhaps we are meant to understand that Dr. Shirley is a 20th-century Orpheus, whose art is so beautiful that it charms and enchants everyone who hears it. In the ancient Greek story Orpheus tames even the guardians of the underworld with his music--and they let him through without harm. In the Deep South of the 1960s, however, he meets certain limitations.
The mythological Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice who was taken from him by death on their wedding day. The Green Book does not go that far in its analogy, but there’s no question that Dr. Shirley—this modern-day Orpheus who lives on the top floor of New York’s Carnegie Hall—will take his own journey. It's a geographic and psychic descent from the relative freedom of the North into the dangerous Deep South, which for African-Americans of the pre-Civil Rights era was hell on earth.
Since Shirley’s Orpheus in the Underworld is not on the soundtrack, here’s “Water Boy,” a delightful jazz trio piece that is. Enjoy. And by all means, see this movie. It’s worth every minute.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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