Green Book is the sneak-up-behind-and-surprise -you movie of the year. Quite frankly, no one saw this one coming, save the extraordinarily talented team of artists behind the film, beginning with co-stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, both sure bets for Oscar nominations. Although Green Book is slipping into theaters just in time for Thanksgiving without much fanfare, it is probably the only film standing between A Star is Born and a sweep of next year's Academy Awards. Green Book already stunned more than a few critics when it upended A Star is Born at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, taking the festival's coveted People's Choice Award. I'm thrilled to report that Green Book is by far my favorite film of 2018, and I can't wait for you to share my excitement.
First, a bit of history: The Negro Motorist Green Book used to be published annually in the U.S. from 1936 to 1966. The Green Book, as it was popularly known, was considered by many to be less of a tourists' guide and more of a survival tool for African Americans traveling by car. It singled out hotels, restaurants and pubs that accepted black customers and, perhaps more importantly, listed the many establishments that did not, particularly in the Jim Crow South. Legend has it that, with Green Book in hand, world-class classical/jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) hired Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka "Tony the Lip" (Mortensen), to be his personal driver on a historic but perilous trip through the Deep South in 1962. What followed was tailor-made for a brilliant true story: a visceral reflection of a divided America.
- Getty images for TIFF
- Viggo Mortensen (left) and Mahershala Ali (right) at TIFF
Six decades later, it has never been more relevant.
"It's a movie about a black man and a white man before the Civil Rights Act, and the backdrop is one of obvious socio-economic and racial tension," Mortensen told Boise Weekly at his film's world premiere. "But in many ways, we're facing the same problems today. There are a lot of mirror images and mirror concepts that our story deals with, between 1962 and now, and I think people will find that enlightening as well as entertaining."
To Mortensen's point, "entertaining" is the magic element of Green Book. What might have been an engaging story in someone else's hands jumps from the screen with personality. In the course of 130 minutes, you're guaranteed some of the purest laughs and tears you're likely to experience in the cinema any time soon.
"I don't know if there's enough time to talk about working with the brilliant Viggo Mortensen," Ali told BW at Green Book's premiere. "I've always been that actor who will say, 'Can I get one more take?' And Viggo will always ask for one more than I do. He's very much a perfectionist and it really has been a clinic working with him, and a real joy. He's been a wonderful ally."
Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Moonlight, isn't the only Oscar-winner on board for Green Book. Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, The Help) is the film's executive producer. And it's not too much of a stretch to think that such a heady period piece, laced with complex racial conflict, would be given to a formidable Oscar-winning director (think Scorsese or Spielberg), but Green Book's biggest surprise is its director, Peter Farrelly. Yes, he's one of those Farrellys—the sibling that co-directed the less-than-posh Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There's Something About Mary.
At his film's premiere, Farrelly told BW that when the son of the real "Tony the Lip" told him the story of his dad's infamous trip with Dr. Shirley, he couldn't get it out of his head.
"I'd be lying in bed thinking, 'God, that's a good story,'" he recalled. "I'd be driving along thinking, 'Man, that's a great story.' I called him and asked, 'Hey, what's going on with that story about the black pianist and his driver? That's a great story.' I finally said, 'I'd love to come on board.'"