Below are the remarks from the December 11, 2018 “Off the Couch” viewing of Green Book with Judith A. Yanof, MD, Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
When Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger as well as unexpected humanity and humor—they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.
Green Book is a road trip movie said to be based on a true story of the relationship that developed between Dr. Don Shirley, an accomplished African-American pianist, and his Italian-American bodyguard/chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga, as they took a concert tour through the south in 1962. The name of the film is taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a state-by-state guidebook (published from 1936 to 1966) that listed motels, places to eat, and gas stations that were willing to serve travelling black motorists during the era of segregation . Driving while black during this time was not only uncomfortable, but could be extremely dangerous.
First, let me begin by saying something about how this movie was made. The screenplay was written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, with the help of Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly. Nick was five years old in 1962 when his father became the driver and bodyguard for Don Shirley. The real trip lasted around two years, not two months as depicted in the film. By Nick’s account, his father and Shirley remained friends and were in contact with each other for the rest of their lives. Vallelonga says that for a very long time he had wanted to make his father’s story into a movie – a story that he considered remarkable and that he understood to be transformative in his father’s life. He spent hours with his father recording his father’s memories of the trip in order to help him with this project; he also got Dr. Shirley’s blessing for the project. Shirley’s stipulations were that he “tell the truth,” and that he not make the film until after Shirley’s death . Vallelonga says that every scene in this film actually happened . When the project began to get serious, Tony’s wife, Dolores, also provided the actual letters Tony had written to her from the road.
However, Don Shirley’s family did not have very kind things to say about the film . Shirley’s brother wrote that the family had never been consulted about the film before it was made. Furthermore, his family saw no resemblance between the person portrayed as his brother on screen and the real Don Shirley. He was particularly offended about the characterization of his brother as isolated and estranged from the family, which he denied. He said Tony Vallelonga was his brother’s employee, not his friend; that his brother was never beaten up; that his brother would never ride in a teal Cadillac, but only used a black limousine; and so forth. The family saw the movie itself as one more instance of white exploitation of a black man, and urged audiences to boycott the film.
Let me give you one other example of this “Rashomon” effect. The day the announcement of my discussion was posted online, a colleague of mine from the west coast called me to let me know that he had known Don Shirley quite well during his lifetime. He said that the person portrayed in the movie was nothing like the real Don Shirley. My colleague told me that when he was a boy of nine growing up in Manhattan in the mid-fifties, his parents went out to eat one night at a popular barbeque restaurant, where a black pianist was playing during the dinner hour. Everyone was talking so loudly that no one could hear the music. The pianist, clearly upset at the way he was being ignored, took out a whistle and let out an ear-piercing blast that quickly quieted the crowd; he then began to play. After the show, my colleague’s parents, who were very impressed by the performance, invited Dr. Don Shirley to their table, and so began a lifelong friendship. My colleague said that Shirley was immediately “adopted into his family,” spent time with them, vacationed with them at their country home, and played for them on many occasions. In fact, he knew Shirley until his death, in 2013 when Shirley was eighty-six. My colleague said that he felt extremely uncomfortable with the portrayal of Shirley in the movie as arrogant, isolated, uptight, and aloof. To him, Shirley was so different: ebullient, generous, interested in people, fun-loving, and well connected to the black community of artists with whom he was engaged. My colleague was happy, however, that through this film, Shirley was getting some of the recognition and celebrity that he deserved.
So what does one make of these reactions from people who really knew the artist? As we know, there is never a single “truth,” just a number of different perspectives. The movie we have just seen is clearly the story of a relationship through Tony’s eyes. Because this is Nick Vallelonga’s homage to his father and it is his father’s narrative, it also explains why some very important parts of Don Shirley’s story are never articulated. For instance, exactly why is Shirley taking this tour which he knows to be perilous and which turns out to be a thoroughly enraging, humiliating experience? In the movie we are told that it is not for the money, but we have no actual explanation for Shirley’s motivation. In fact, without the magnetic performance of Mahershala Ali, Don Shirley would be a somewhat minor, more enigmatic character.
The name Don Shirley is probably not familiar to you, nor was it to me, so I wanted to mention some of Shirley’s accomplishments. Don Shirley was born in 1927 to Jamaican parents, and grew up in Pensacola, Florida. His father was an Episcopal minister, his mother a teacher; he was the fourth of five siblings. He was a child musical prodigy. His mother taught him organ and piano at a very young age, and he performed the organ in church at the age of three. At nine, his mother died, and shortly thereafter, he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory to study music composition. He was trained as a world-class classical pianist, and debuted with the Boston Pops at eighteen years of age. Although he always wanted to be a classical concert pianist, he felt that he never achieved the success he had hoped for because of his race. He told friends that he was dissuaded from being a classical musician and directed to jazz in his twenties because there was no way that the world would accept a black concert pianist at that time. He played jazz, gospel, and popular music at night clubs and also played classical piano in concert throughout his life, and he composed. However, he never achieved the fame or career he wanted .
The music played during the performance sequences in Green Book is Shirley’s music. What Shirley did, as you can hear in the film, was to weave classical pieces into his jazz riffs and into popular songs, inventing his own unique genre. Kris Bowers, a jazz pianist and Julliard graduate, wrote the musical score for the film. Bowers transcribed all of Shirley’s music from recordings, including the parts for the trio, since there was no existing sheet music. Bowers then learned the piano parts himself, practicing eight or nine hours a day and re-recorded it . Bowers also spent three months teaching Mahershala Ali how to play piano and taught him the body movements of a pianist. We actually see Ali’s hands on some of the simpler numbers .
This is a movie that audiences have liked and critics have given mixed reviews. In particular, there has been a lot of criticism about the way race is portrayed in the film with some sense that the overall message is too “feel good,” leaving the impression that a solution to America’s race problems could be solved simply by people getting to know each other better . Some have called it another “white savior” movie . While I understand the criticism, I actually enjoyed the movie. To me, the best part of the movie is the chemistry between the two actors Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali. The way they talk, banter, and play off each other is absolutely riveting and totally engaging.
Green Book is a movie, not only set in an earlier time, but a film made like an older movie. It is linear, easy to follow, completely predictable, and has many light touches. One knows what is going to happen the whole way through, and that makes it easy to watch. Segregation in the South is depicted in all its ugliness, but the movie’s tone is not so raw, not so brutal that the audience becomes sick with fear, as happens with some more contemporary movies about race relations, (for instance, compare it to the 2017 film, Detroit), or, for that matter, as happens watching the live footage of the desegregation struggles that occurred during and shortly after this time.
This is a road trip movie taken by the conventional odd couple. Like all road trip movies, it is not so much about the destination but about the journey. It is about two very different people who are forced by circumstance to leave the safety and predictability of their respective lives – Tony leaves his family and familiar neighborhood, Shirley his cloistered apartment. The two men are not particularly thrilled to be travelling together; it is a marriage of convenience. But because they are in new territory, territory that is uncomfortable for each of them and, at times, downright dangerous, they have to adapt. They have to learn about each other. They have to rely on each other. They eventually form bonds with each other. We watch them impact each other. Not only does their relationship change, but each individual changes. They find out that they are not actually as different as they thought at first.
Although racial difference is the obvious nidus around which their story unfolds, it is far from their only difference. They have very different educations, they have different values, different sensibilities, and, although they both live in New York City, they come from completely different social milieus. They are also portrayed as characterologically opposite. Dr. Shirley is all brain; Tony all brawn and appetite.
When we see Tony, his body monopolizes the camera; he is often in his underwear. Tony has a hard time controlling that body – he is impulsive, he talks too much, he eats too much. When under siege, he relies on the pure power of that body to survive. His appetite is enormous, and he lets it all hang out, quite literally. He is happy to bring up his own family in the same place that he grew up and never move away. Why should he change his name, the way he talks, or the way he thinks? In an unquestioning way, he is self-satisfied.
Dr. Shirley is the opposite. He is erudite, refined, uptight, and deeply uncomfortable with himself. He has a passion for words and for music, but performs both with enormous discipline. Shirley is dressed to the hilt, always covered up and under wraps. He is portrayed as alone and isolated even from his own trio members. While he is presented as arrogant, his aloof veneer barely hides his sense of vulnerability. He feels obligated to an appearance of dignity, even when the circumstances call for something else. Certainly, race plays its part in this adaptation, but he seems to have the belief that to get to where he is going, to fulfill his ambitions as a musician, he must travel alone. He actually says that he has lost his marriage and connection to his family in the process of pursuing his career.
As soon as these two men start their trip, they begin to poke at each other. Tony, in his racist way, says that Don Shirley isn’t black enough, or rather that he has to separate himself from his blackness, because he is afraid to like Little Richard or southern fried chicken. Shirley chastises Tony as if he were a spoiled child for stealing a polished stone, for unloading trash onto the road, for gambling outside with the other drivers, when he could be on the inside, listening to the music. He feels that Tony has a choice about what he can make of himself, and that he should aspire to be more than he is.
The two poles that these two characters seem to occupy have to do with the discipline/self-denial it takes to be the best you can be and reach a level of becoming extraordinary, on the one hand, versus the self-acceptance, belonging, and need for community it takes to be comfortable in your own skin. Obviously these goals do not have to be seen as mutually exclusive, as they are presented here. Nevertheless, as the journey unfolds, we see Tony open his eyes, not only to what it is like to walk in the other man’s shoes (apparently a huge eye-opener for Tony), but to be in touch with his own appreciation and admiration for what Don Shirley can do. We come to see a Tony who wants to write his own romantic letters and is practicing his diction while he is driving. We also see a Don Shirley who apologizes for his judgmental words, who vicariously becomes part of Tony’s relationship with his wife by writing love letters to Tony’s wife, and who drives the car himself in the final lap so that his friend can get home for Christmas. In the last act, he chooses Tony’s family rather than being alone.
The metaphor here is that the road trip is not only the journey of a relationship, but also the journey of two individuals. Perhaps that is why the “feel-good” aspect of the movie does not bother me so much. As a therapist I very much believe in the possibility of change. In every therapy there is a journey as well; it is also a journey in which one does not travel alone. One has to want to change and be flexible enough to change, but the conditions of the journey must also be right. These conditions have to do with being both comfortable enough to feel safe and uncomfortable enough to spur change. The journey in this movie has both these features.
 Richard Roeper, ‘Green Book’: Jazzman and bruiser take a feel-good road trip in 60s south, Chicago Sun-Times, November 15, 2018.
Joe Deckelmeier, Nick Vallelonga Interview: ‘Green Book,’ Screen Rant, November 20, 2018.
Rachel E. Greenspan, The True Story Behind the Movie ‘Green Book.” Time, November 15, 2018
 Symara Lynn, Family of black man, Don Shirley, portrayed in ‘The Green Book’ blasts movie and its “lies,” Black Enterprise, November 29, 2018; Zack Sharf, ‘Green Book’ character’s family condemns film’s “hurtful” lies, Indie Wire, December 17, 2018.
 Giovanni Russonello, Who was Don Shirley? ‘Green Book’ tries to solve the Mystery, New York Times, November 2, 2018; http.//www.joyousjam.com/jamaicasclassicalmusicians/id17.html
 Jon Burlingame, Kris Bowers serves double-duty as “Green Book’ music maestro, Variety.com, November 29, 2018
 Randy Lewis, The conversation: How ‘Green Book’ composer Kris Bowers taught piano to Mahershala Ali and honors Don Shirley, L.A. Times, December 13, 2018.
 Armond White, ‘Green Book’ turns brotherhood into a bromide, National Review, November 16, 2018
 Brooke Obie, ‘Green Book’ is a poorly titled white savior film, Shadow and Act. November 15, 2018.
Judith A. Yanof, MD is a Supervising and Training Analyst, a Child and Adolescent Clinical Supervisor, and Co-Chair of the Ethics Education Committee at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. For many years she has been an active participant in BPSI’s community program, Off the Couch. She has written psychoanalytic articles on film as well as articles on several different aspects of child analysis, including gender, development, transference, termination, and play. She has a private practice in Newton, MA.
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