There Really Was a Green Book

One of the my childhood memories is of traveling by car with my family and stopping by the side of the road to use the toilet training chair potty, even though I was a “big girl” and fully toilet-trained. Little did my sisters and I realize that the reason we traveled with the potty (which even my mother had to use occasionally) under the front seat was because we sometimes could not find a gas station that would allow us to use its toilets. And that was in the 1950s and ’60s.

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1937 Edition,The Green-Book from the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Eighty or ninety years ago, African-American motorists had to be fearless to take to the road in their own corner of the world, let alone to drive to another part of the country. Gas stations often would not allow Negroes to use their toilets, and the few motels along the way might not accept African-American travelers. This was a problem nationwide, not just in the South.

The Negro Motorist Green Book debuted in 1936. If you think driving while black is dangerous now, imagine what it was like over 80 years ago. Victor Hugo Green began publishing the Green-Book because he saw an urgent need, and he filled it by publishing what came to be known simply as the Green Book.

The Green-Book‘s creator was a New Jersey postal worker who resided in Harlem, New York.  The earliest copy I found of the book — 1937 — sold for 25 cents, but by 1949, it was up to 75 cents.  It was last published in 1966, six years after Green’s death.

That’s four years before the events in this fall’s feature film “Green Book” take place. I never had heard of The Negro Motorist Green-Book until the movie trailers began running on television and at the movies. Subsequently, while chatting with a friend

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1940 Edition, The Green-Book

about the movie and its title, we both decided to Google Green Book. A world was opened up to us. I never saw my parents use the Green Book, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had one or at least knew of it. After all, we once lived in Mound Bayou, Mississippi and traveled between that little all-black town, and Nashville, Tennessee; Detroit, Michigan; and Augusta, Georgia where my uncle was in college.

In “Green Book,” the movie, the Green Book makes only two cameo appearances, and it is not well represented. The purpose of the  actual Green Book was to identify nice, decent places — hotels, boarding houses, rooms to rent, gas stations, eateries, and other establishments — where Negroes were welcome.  Of course, the film’s writers, one of whom is Nick Vallelonga, son of the white protagonist of the movie, had no real-world experience or (apparently) consultants to help them imagine what places listed in the Green Book might have been like. As a result, the two “hotels” the movie’s black protagonist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) stays in are way below my bar even for a place to change clothes. They seem both rundown and dangerous. The Orange Bird, the Birmingham restaurant and bar at which the two protagonists dine after Don Shirley refuses to perform where he can’t eat, comes off a bit better; though Shirley and his chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) barely avoid being mugged outside the establishment.

Still, I liked this movie and will probably see it again. Despite its deficits, “Green Book” held my attention because of its good casting, acting, and music; interesting characters; and historical references to the realities of the American South some of which persist throughout the country even today.

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Ali and Mortensen as Don Shirley and Tony Lip Vallelonga.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen both are world-class actors who inhabit their characters and make them believable. Ali’s haughty, affected Dr. Donald Shirley ensconced upon a throne in a beautiful flowing robe as he interviews chauffeur candidates, creates an air of superiority and determination to impress we come to believe Shirley, a first-generation Jamaican-American, possessed. A genius piano virtuoso who was counseled to eschew the classical stage because of his race, Shirley instead defied both classical and jazz tradition to create the Don Shirley Trio. Composed of cello, bass and piano, a previously unheard of combination of instruments, Shirley and his compatriots wowed both the classical and jazz music worlds both here and abroad. Ali conveys his character’s genius, skill, charm, alienation, hauteur, naïveté, and general loneliness perfectly. Although some have complained that Shirley’s character is not well developed, my research revealed Shirley as a complex, closeted, isolated though charming person whom Ali portrays well, giving us glimpses of the charming, erudite  yet isolated man who lived a lonely life attended to by an Indian manservant in a sumptuously appointed apartment above Carnegie Hall.

Viggo Mortensen seems to have gained 25 or more pounds for this role. With his beefy physical presence,  Mortensen plays uncouth Italian-American Copacabana bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Mortensen’s Tony Lip is especially déclassé compared to Ali’s refined Shirley, and it is the character of Tony that grows and changes the most in this on-the-road buddy movie. Despite their differences, Vallelonga and Shirley learn to value and trust each other, and Tony Lip’s racist attitudes diminish as he spends time with and learns volumes from and about Shirley.

The movie is made more enjoyable by the period music some of which is in the mode of the renowned Don Shirley Trio. Although Mahershala Ali “plays” the piano, it is Kris Bowers, the film’s composer who composed the score, transcribed and played all of Don Shirley’s original 1960s compositions. He also taught Ali how to look as if he knew his way around a keyboard. Even my musician friend was impressed that Ali seemed to be playing the music.

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Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as Tony Lip Vallelonga and piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley.

“Green Book,” the film, isn’t actually about Victor Green’s Negro Motorist Green-Book, but it references and introduces the audience to it which is a good thing. The movie led me to learn of the Green Book‘s existence and reintroduced me to Don Shirley and his music which I had heard on my father’s stereo when I was a girl.

I suggest that you see “Green Book,” the movie if you haven’t already. Regardless of your race, and your attitudes, I am confident you will enjoy it.

4 Replies to “There Really Was a Green Book”

  1. Thanks for this!! Your piece really brings out the film’s strengths and significance, and does a real service to the story by enhancing its context. Thinking back on it, I’m struck anew by how well the film depicts its time and places, and how convincingly and freshly the protagonists inhabit their characters.

    Diane

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Thanks for the tip! I plan to see the movie soon. Your description brings back memories of my family’s travels from Wisconsin to Alabama in the 1950s. Now we know how brave our parents were (with or without a “green book”)!

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  2. We saw the movie today and absolutely loved it. I’m usually not interested in seeing a movie more than once, but we’ll see it again.

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  3. Great article – well-written and researched – about a very fine movie! Whatever deficiencies it has are, in my opinion, balanced by what it provides: knowledge about the all-but-forgotten career of a wonderful musician. Thanks to this film, so many people who never heard the name Don Shirley may seek out information about him, and be introduced to his brilliant talent.

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