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Film / Green Book

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Green Book is a 2018 historical dramedy biopic directed by Peter Farrelly and inspired by the time Tony Lip served as driver and bodyguard to Don Shirley.

When he's forced to seek temporary employment for the winter, New York City bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) lands an interview with famed concert pianist Donald "Don" Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is seeking a personal valet for an eight-week tour — one predominantly visiting the Deep South.

In addition to driving Don from gig to gig and generally assisting him, he's also responsible for keeping Don safe from physical violence. Over the course of the trip, Tony and Don form an unlikely bond that'll affect both their lives for good. Linda Cardellini also stars as Tony's wife Dolores.

Green Book provides examples of:

  • The '60s: It's set in 1962.
  • The Alcoholic: Don is a functional example: he's a heavy drinker and requests an entire bottle of Cutty Sark in his tour rider every night, but it does not interfere with his musical abilities.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Don was once married to a woman, though in the film he's caught naked having a tryst with another man in a public pool by the cops. It's never made clear if she was cover, a heterosexual relationship before he embraced being gay, or he's bi. The fact he shows no interest toward a waitress flirting with him may indicate Don is gay, not bi, though.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Kentucky Fried Chicken did not sell Extra Crispy buckets in 1962.
    • Don Shirley is depicted as being culturally distant from both his family and also other black people generally, though his living family insists that he was good friends with them and other prominent black musicians.
  • Bait the Dog: Several of Don's clients initially treat him fairly well, before revealing their prejudice, such as the hotel manager who won't let him eat at their white-only restaurant, and the family that serve him corn and fried chicken as a "special treat" and make him drive several miles back to his hotel to use a bathroom since he doesn't want to use the outhouse they point him towards and they won't allow him to use their own bathroom.
  • Based on a True Story: Adapted from real events.
  • Big Eater: Tony. Hardly a scene goes by where he isn't stuffing his face, including while driving and Don remarks upon it. Near the beginning he gets into a hot-dog eating contest with a noticeably portlier gentleman... and wins. This culminates in him eating an entire pizza by folding it in half.
  • Bilingual Backfire: When Don addresses Tony in perfect Italian, it's obvious that he understood the conversation between Tony and one of his friends, during which the latter made slightly derogatory comments about him and offered Tony another job.
  • Brandishment Bluff: Played with. When Tony rescues Don from being roughed up in a bar, he first attempts diplomacy to get them both out of there. When the racists brandish a knife, Tony bluffs being about ready to brandish a gun. Ultimately, they don't call his bluff, which is fortunate because a close listen reveals that he did touch his hand to a weapon.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Don advises Tony to shorten his name for the tour, because "Vallelonga" is difficult to pronounce. He refuses. Later, when Tony is introduced before a concert, the host actually cannot pronounce "Vallelonga" correctly. Much later, another host cannot remember Tony's name correctly and he uses an incorrect name.
    • Tony steals a green rock. Don tells him to give it back and Tony seems to give in. Later, when Tony is alone in his bedroom, he takes the rock out of his pocket. Still later, when they are driving in the snow, Don tells Tony to put the rock on the dashboard to bring good luck, which shows that he has always been aware that Tony had kept the rock. In the very end, Don puts the rock on a piece of furniture in his apartment, which means that he has stolen the rock from Tony.
    • Don has never eaten fried chicken. Tony, astonished that a black man has never eaten it, insists that Don eats some in the car. Finally, Don accepts and he confesses that it is good. Later, Don is offered a dinner. The host explains that he asked his (black) kitchen staff what Don might like to eat, to which they answered 'fried chicken', so they prepared fried chicken for him.
    • In the beginning of the road trip, Tony explains that a friend of his nicknames Pittsburgh "Tittsburgh", because the women there are supposed to have bigger breasts than elsewhere. At the end of the trip, Tony tells Don that something has been eating at him the whole trip: Tittsburgh was a major disappointment.
    • Over the course of the film, Don helps Tony to write love letters to his wife, who is very happy to receive such romantic letters. In the end, when Don shows up at Tony's house, the wife immediately thanks Don for helping out Tony with the letters, which shows she had guessed he didn't write them by himself.
    • On the car ride when Oleg speaks to Don in Polish, Tony mistakes it for German, claiming he was stationed in Germany in the army and could pick up some of what they were saying, later in the film when Tony clinks glasses with Oleg and George he says "Dankeshön" (Thank You in German)
  • But Not Too Gay: Don remains firmly in the closet through the whole movie, and his attraction to men is never explored beyond him being caught naked with one at a pool. He does however, show elements of Camp Gay when very, very drunk.
  • Category Traitor: Tony is shocked when Don admits not knowing much music by African-American singers or that he's never tried fried chicken.
  • Cunning Linguist: Don speaks in perfect Russian to the other members of his trio and in Italian to Tony (in Real Life, Shirley was fluent in 8 languages).
  • The Dandy: Don, who dresses aristocratically, travels with small blanket draped over him, and has refined tastes.
  • Deep South: Much of the film is set in the Deep South during the 1960s, where something like the titular Green Book was a necessity for African-Americans to travel safely.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: A non-romantic version. In the beginning, Don is haughty and distant. He is disdainful of Tony. Over the course of the film, he will develop a genuine friendship relationship with him.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film generally presents an image of how the Deep South actually was in the 1960s, with some edges filed off. Tony and his family's attitude towards African-Americans are also right in line with the times. Interestingly, the film also briefly alludes to the fact that, while Italian-Americans were certainly better off than African-Americans, they were still targeted at the time (primarily because they were Catholics).
  • Dirty Cop: This works in Don and Tony's favor, as their able to bribe a couple of cops who catch Don having sex with another man, which was illegal at the time, into letting him go.
  • Discriminate and Switch: As they were trying to get back to New York in time for Christmas, they get pulled over by a cop and they both expect this to be a repeat of a previous incident where they were flagged down by a racist policeman. Turns out the cop just noticed that one of their back tires was flat and helps them change it before wishing them both a Merry Christmas.
  • Dumb Muscle: Although he's a pretty tough guy on the surface, it's revealed that Tony has bad writing skills and often isn't very classy (such as putting chewed food back onto the platter).
  • Everybody Has Standards: Don is fine with throwing out chicken bones on the streets, but he makes Tony drive back to pick up a paper cup and its plastic he threw out.
  • Foreign Queasine: Well, foreign to New York. Tony is a Big Eater who is always stuffing his face throughout the film, but late in the movie he is offered a high-class pimento cheese sandwich and he couldn't stomach it.
  • Foreshadowing: The only time we see Don behave in any way "stereotypically gay" is when he is deeply drunk. But a short time later, he is placed under arrest for something he did with another naked man while in the pool.
  • Gay Cruising: Tony saves Don from being arrested after Don gets caught hooking up with another man at a public pool.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: The two officers who pulled Don and Tony over and eventually arrested them. The younger of the two was a little more accommodating and wasn't as hostile towards them, while his older partner didn't even try to hide his racist attitude.
  • Gratuitous Italian: Tony's family speaks a lot of Italian around the house, invoking itself in one instance when they use it to mask their racism towards black plumbers doing work there.
  • Happily Married: Tony's background. This is why it is difficult for him to accept the driver's job, because it means that he will be away from his wife for weeks.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Tony frequently talks with his family and compatriots in Italian to talk about other people behind their backs. It doesn't work with Don.
  • Hidden Depths: Tony appears to be a casually racist, unscrupulous character but ultimately a loving family man. Don requests an interview because his name came up around town that he's a good bodyguard, and despite his racist behavior and somewhat sloppy driving he performs the job particularly well. The real kicker happens when Don is caught with another man and Tony doesn't flinch at the reveal of his sexuality. This surprises Don, and Tony explains that working New York nightclubs made him accustomed to the issue.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Despite a belief that Tony would not take well to being the assistant to a black man, when he's given a job he does what is necessary to get it done. Don will only play a particular piano brand, and Tony had to rough up the stage manager a bit to get a show on track. Don occasionally got into trouble and Tony was expertly able to negotiate his way out of the situation.
  • In-Universe Nickname: Tony invariably calls Don "Doc" informally or "Doctor Shirley" professionally, accurate but unnecessary once he finds out that Shirley is Not That Kind of Doctor.
  • Italians Talk with Hands: Most of the Italian characters gesticulate a lot when they talk, especially Tony.
  • Incompatible Orientation: The waitress at the Orange Bird in Birmingham, who flirts with Don but is barking up the wrong tree.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Tony is this to a T. He's boorish, foul-mouthed, crude, uncultured, has a bit of a temper, casually racist and not above theft or violence, but he's also a genuinely loving family man who eventually warms up to Don and lets go of his prejudice.
    • Don seems to be just a haughty dandy. During Tony's job interview, he sits on a throne. He mocks Tony's ignorance. He also seems to consider himself superior to other black people. Actually, he suffers from being estranged from both black people (because of his privileged status) and white people (because of white people's prejudices). He is also a brave person who dare to tour in the Deep South, even if he knows it is dangerous and even if he has more lucrative opportunities, because he thinks that it is useful to change the white people's minds about black people.
  • MacGuffin Title: The title's "Green Book" refers to a real publication that was made for African-Americans to travel with, listing establishments where they would be safe from prejudice. One such edition of the Green Book is seen in the movie.
  • Men Are Uncultured: Played with between Tony and Don. The former is quite boorish and unpolished, while Don is a cultured artist who is apparently not heterosexual.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: "Green Book" is short for "The Negro Motorist Green Book", a travel safety guide for African-Americans visiting the Deep South on where to find friendly places where they could eat or stay during the period of the film. However, this only gets mentioned briefly in the film, and used once. While the difficulties Don faces as a black person in the South do feature, most of it's not really about that, and this is one source of criticism.
  • Noble Bigot: Tony to a T. Even though he is undoubtedly racist at the beginning of the tour, he willingly puts himself in harm's way to defend Don Shirley from physical violence and shows far more disgust towards Southern bigots. His family members initially hold bets he wouldn't last a couple weeks working for a black man, but despite an uncouth attitude and inappropriate comments he is very good at his job and becomes friends with Don.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: Don holds Ph.D.s in multiple fields including classical piano and thus goes by the title of doctor, Tony is initially under the belief he will be working with a medical doctor.
  • Odd Couple: Don, a refined black pianist, and Tony, a boorish Italian-American bouncer, become friends.
  • One Phone Call: Don uses his when he and Tony are arrested. It leads to Robert F. Kennedy getting both released.
  • Only in It for the Money: Subverted. In the beginning, Tony helps Don only because he will receive a large amount of money and he needs it to support his family. Over the course of the film, Tony will become friend with Don, and money becomes less important for him: he rejects an offer for another job with a higher pay (he even rejects Don's offer for a pay rise); in the end, he rejects a bribe offered to him to persuade Don to play in a restaurant even if he is not allowed to eat.
  • Oscar Bait: Ticks several boxes: it's a historical fiction film about a marginalized person overcoming categorization and his friendship with a white man.
  • Playing Cyrano: Tony writes letters to his wife at home while he's one the road during their two-month tour. Tony's first letter is almost embarrassing in its smallness ("How are you? I am fine.") so Don steps in to help refine them. Toward the end, Tony's able to write them of his own accord.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero:
    • Tony isn't the most enlightened white man when we meet him. He dismisses and stereotypes other racial groups, throws out his own glasses in apparent disgust after they are used by black men, and regularly disrespects Don to his face in a manner he does not to his other employers. Unlike other examples of this trope, him learning to be more respectful and accepting actually comprises his character arc, and his attitudes are notably different when he returns home.
    • Tony actually subverts this expectation when Don is caught cavorting with another man. Tony handles the situation gracefully and tells him that he's "been working in New York City nightclubs for years", implying that he's much more accepting of LGBT people than might be expected from a straight man from his time.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Let's get the fuck out of here."
  • Rambunctious Italian: The Italian-American "Tony Lip" is a smooth hustler able to talk his way out of any situation. He's also a tough guy not afraid to bust a few heads if he needs to. He talks pretty much constantly while driving, much to Dr. Shirley's consternation, and his whole family is loud and emotive.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The movie ends by showing photos of the real Tony and Dr. Shirley, and fills in some info about what happened to them in real life after the events of the movie (they stayed friends).
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Tony is the Red Oni. He is enthusiastic, he enjoys eating and he does not hesitate to break the rules. Don is the Blue Oni. He is intellectual, cultured and calm.
  • Road Trip Plot: Tony and Don travel together through the United States during Don's music trio tour.
  • Running Gag:
    • Tony is a Big Eater. This is demonstrated scenes after scenes.
    • The green rock shows up four times in the film. Its appearance gets funnier and funnier.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!:
    • Tony refuses to ditch Don for a chance to get another 'job' even after being offered double the money he was offered to work for Don.
    • When offered a bribe to persuade Don to conform to the fact he's not allowed to dine at the restaurant his music trio is about to play in, he refuses.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: When Don and Tony are arrested, they're released because the former is friends with Bobby Kennedy.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: When the country club where they're meant to have the last performance of their tour refuses to serve Don in their dining hall where he's meant to perform and the head waiter tries to bribe Tony to convince Don to do it after he threathened to walk out if he isn't allowed to eat there and takes pride in the fact that they similarily refused to serve the black members of a championship-winning basketball team, both of them finally decide they've had enough of Southern racism and walk out without looking back, with the head waiter yelling at them about breach of contract and the black waiters working there laughing at the situation.
  • Seen It All: Tony doesn't bat an eye when Don is arrested for a same-sex dalliance, explaining that he's worked in nightclubs a long time.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Don is a cultured artist, he can write love letters and he is not heterosexual. Tony is heterosexual and he does not hesitate to punch people in the face when needed (or even when not needed).
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Don is a refined classic pianist. Tony comes from the slums of New York. It's difficult for them to get on with each other in the beginning. For example, Don wants to correct Tony's diction.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Tony is every bit the coarse, uncultured, working-class boor that he appears to be... and also shows himself to be uncannily talented in talking and manipulating his way out of dangerous situations and generally getting people to do what he wants. As he describes it, he's a good "bullshit artist".
  • Speech-Centric Work: Much of the film is composed of dialogue between the cultured black pianist Don Shirley and his boorish white bouncer Tony Lip.
  • Stout Strength: Tony is far from a typical body sculpted muscle man with a protruding gut whenever we see him with a tank top on, but there is no doubt he is physically powerful. He typically works as a bouncer and bodyguard.
  • Stylistic Suck:
    • Tony's letters to his wife before Don coaches him. He's obviously trying to be heartfelt, but they are filled with platitudes and his handle on things like spelling and proper language is unsure, to say the least. Afterwards he gets better at articulating himself afterwards, such that Tony starts writing his own letters near the end of their tour again.
    • Best exemplified the first time Don helps Tony with a letter. After Don dictates a long, flowery and eloquent message about how much Tony loves and misses his wife, Tony adds a P.S "kiss the kids" at the end, something which Don finds unorthodox but charming in its own way.
    Don: That's like clanging a cowbell at the end of Shostakovich's Seventh.
  • The Stoic: Oleg, Don's cellist, although he does get several powerful moments, such as pointing out to Tony that Don did not have to tour through the south, where he's treated like dirt, but is trying to win hearts and minds.
  • Sustained Misunderstanding: Tony spends the entire film under the impression that Oleg is German, trying to speak German to him, etc.
  • Token Good Teammate: The youngest of the three cops in Mississippi, who doesn't display the racism of his two colleagues, is fairly professional during the traffic stop and does point out that Don is entitled to a phone call (which he uses to call Bobby Kennedy) while the other two cops seemed content to ignore this request.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Don appears to be one when he's caught in the pool with another man.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: According to Shirley's brother and nephew, the film depicts Don very inaccurately, and highly exaggerates the supposed friendship between him and Vallelonga.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Tony and Don are this at times.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A brief title card at the end mentions Don and Tony were life-long friends after the tour, and died within months of one another.
  • White Man's Burden: Don is successful black artist, but he has no family and no friends. Moreover, he wants to go on tour in the Deep South, where he will encounter many problems. Tony will help him to overcome the problems during his tour, but more importantly he will help him to develop human relationships (Tony becomes friends with Don; he also advises Don to write a letter to his estranged brother). In the beginning, Tony helps Don only because of the money he will get, but in the end he helps him selflessly, because he regards Don as a friend. Zigzagged, because Tony is Only in It for the Money in the beginning, and because Don also helps Tony to overcome his prejudices. Don's performing partners also suggest that Don took the southern states tour at his own risk specifically to help normalize black performers.
  • The Whitest Black Guy: Don, despite wanting to break barriers with his tour, finds himself disconnected from other black people and the hardships they face in the South. As a result, he remains distant from the other tenants of most the hotels he stays in and regularly puts himself into dangerous situations by assuming access to whites-only establishments. This led to Shirley's living family decrying the film as a "symphony of lies", as they said the real Shirley had many black friends (mostly among his fellow musicians), and was close with them.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Don receives much of this sentiment from his white audiences and bookers. He positively hates it, especially since they are quite happy to listen to him but will still treat him like any other black person - i.e like dirt - when he's not playing, and won't let him use the facilities or eat in the same establishment.