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Don't Judge A Book by Its Color
by Jon Schuller

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I have written several columns about friendships in movies, especially those that break rules and precedents. Like people of different religions crossing invisible barriers spanning generations. Like people from different countries not worrying about ages-old conflicts across disputed borders. Like men or women of color becoming life-long friends with those who are white. The 1957 film, Edge of the City, featured Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes becoming friends on the New York waterfront while facing resentfulness and outright hate and violence(please see my column http://www.matchflick.com/column/2868 September 2017). I myself had close black friends as a child and throughout my school years and we didn't listen to the haters and ignorants. Friendship transcends all barriers.

Many stories from the 1960s have taken over 50 years to finally surface and find their way into public knowledge thanks to the movies. Hidden Figures (2016) was the story of the brilliant black female mathematicians who worked for NASA on the space program; they had to fight and earn their respected places there and in American history. In November, 2018, a film premiered that chronicled a true story of two men from totally different backgrounds who share a journey on the roads in America that changed their lives forever. Green Book has won many awards, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. It was directed by Peter Farrelly who also co-authored
the screenplay.

In 1962 a famous African-American jazz musician, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), hires an Italian bouncer from the Bronx, Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), to act as his driver and bodyguard for an extended car trip/tour through the South. Dr. Shirley was a noted musical composer and concert pianist, but Tony's world knew nothing of such a person as this.

Tony has gained a dubious reputation in his neighborhood (and beyond) as a tough guy, who works for and with some local wiseguys in the Bronx. He's married and money has become scarce as the famous Copacabana nightclub, where he works, has been shut down for repairs. Tony needs a job badly. Dr. Shirley interviews Tony at the musician's regal apartment above Carnegie Hall on 57th Street in Manhattan. In the same city, but for the two men, light years apart. So, the journey begins.

They start in the Midwest and during the long drives on empty highways, the two men start to learn about each other and where they "diverge." They are complete opposites. Dr. Shirley is repulsed by Tony's Bronx mouth and habits. Tony cannot understand Don's habits and the fact that he, a black man, speaks so well, plays a concert piano and knows so much about everything. But then a group of white men are threatening Dr. Shirley in a bar and Tony rescues him. He tells the musician never to go anywhere alone again. Tony has starting to really see what happens to a black man, regardless of his incredible talents or
education, in America. The two men have just taken a few steps closer to each.

Don helps Tony with letters to his wife back home, correcting his grammar and making suggestions on what to say. Tony, taking his cue, suggests to Don that he re-establish relations with the doctor's brother; Don says his professional life has made him isolated from his family and friends.

The two men are pulled over by police. The cops insult both men and Tony loses his cool and punches the officer out. In jail, Don asks for his phone call and the next thing we see is the police chief getting a phone call and a dressing down from the Attorney General himself, Robert F. Kennedy, to release the men.

The night of the final show in Birmingham, Alabama, Don is told that he cannot eat supper in the same dining room where he'll be performing later that evening. Both men decide to leave, not performing for the crowd who actually don't like black men and break the contract. They get in the car and wind up at an all-black nightclub, the Orange Bird, as Don sits at the piano on-stage and plays Chopin, wowing the crowd. The house blues band then joins him on stage as they improvise together, getting the audience dancing and cheering.

Don had promised his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), that he'd be home by Christmas Eve. After a harrowing trip in the car through a snowstorm, both men get back to New York. This time Don is driving and Tony is asleep on the back seat. Don gets to his Carnegie Hall
apartment, realizes how alone he is and surprises everyone by showing up at Don's apartment. He is embraced by Dolores and welcomed as a family friend.

Just before the film's credits run, a few postscripts are on screen.
"Dr. Shirley continued to tour, compose, and record to great acclaim. Igor Stravinsky said of him, 'His virtuosity is worthy of the Gods.'"
"Frank 'Tony Lip' Vallelonga went back to his job at the Copacabana, eventually becoming Maitre D'"
"Tony Lip and Dr. Donald Shirley remained friends until they died within months of each other in 2013."

Despite some criticisms (as there usually are with a film like this one, dramatizing a real, sensitive story), Green Book was a great success. It handled its subject well and showed what happened to the two men separately and together. Growing up, I was taught by my parents to be respectful of people and to not judge the outward appearance as how someone really is. My dad had black friends in the 1940s and 1950s and could care less what other people thought. I'm the same way and I did the same as he did in the '60s right through the present.

We need more movies like Green Book. We need to see and feel what happens as people discover their true selves as they simultaneously discover what's true in others. I'm a great believer in honesty. I think America can still reveal the best of people even when things look dark and depressing. America can - and will be - great, although sometimes the journey is long and slow.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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