An American road movie, irrespective of it being nominated for 5 Oscars including best picture, is something we find hard to resist, particularly when it is set in 1962 when cars were great.
It was not a totally great time, however, as America was in the early stages of the social revolution involving a rejection of old ways and attitudes.
The attitudes most in need of changing in the early 1960s were the ones most are familiar with: racial discrimination and stereotyping, particularly in the South.
This true story involves a prestigious black concert pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who wants to do a concert tour in the south, not just south of New York, where he lives rather idiosyncratically in an exotically decorated apartment above Carnegie Hall, but the Deep South. He’s well aware he needs a chauffeur/minder who can handle ‘trouble’. He seeks one and is recommended an Italian-American, Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a flunky cum bouncer at the Club Copacabana which is closing for renovations over two months, a period which coincides with his tour.
They know what trouble they can expect, but the pay is good. The record company is picking up the tab and, together with the celloist and double-bassist forming the other two members of the trio, they set off in two 1962 Cadillac Sedan De Villes hired by the record company.
The expectation of trouble in the South proves accurate: this includes different and less salubrious accommodation for ‘coloreds,’ restaurants from where coloreds are banned, even a clothing store where coloreds can’t try clothes on, only buy them, although alterations will be made if needed. In some areas there are even curfews for coloreds.
Information on all this was provided at the time in a book with a green cover, The Negro Traveler’s Green Book (published from 1936 to 1966) so they know where to go to keep harassment and rejection to a minimum: hence the movie’s title (a facsimile reprint of the 1962 edition is available on Amazon). The venues which Dr. Don Shirley plays at are high society ones, but the discriminatory practices still apply otherwise.
At the outset, both main characters have difficulty understanding where the other is coming from; but eventually they learn to appreciate it and become friends. Each has his own vices: Dr Shirley wants a bottle of Cutty Sark whiskey in his room every night, Tony smokes and likes down-market cuisine — hot dogs, pizza and (Kentucky) fried chicken; but they learn to cope with that, too.
The friendship the movie portrays was real and lasted until 2013 when they died within 3 months of each other.
For the movie watcher the Bronx accent and mannerisms which Dr Don Shirley disdains might also become endearing as does the Tony ‘Lip’ character.
Although the issue of violence in the South towards blacks isn’t ignored, the film doesn’t dwell excessively on it; Dr Don Shirley believes that violence is also to be disdained; maintaining dignity is preferable.
The music isn’t fundamental to the essence of the movie, but some passionate performances nevertheless are portrayed. There is also popular music of the era by black musicians played on the car radio and discussed.
It’s a movie that combines history, scenery, music and humanity very successfully.