Mahershala Ali: “It’s the balance of humor and drama that makes Green Book powerfully authentic”

Enlightening and entertaining, Mahershala Ali’s latest film is a period piece laced with racial conflict and socially relevant humor and it is certain to snag several accolades this award season. Set in the waning years of segregation, it’s an endearing comedy which centers on the relationship between a snobbish black concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) and his crass Italian driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen).

Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly.

In “Green Book,” Ali, who won the Academy Award for Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in “Moonlight” just last year, plays the real-life Dr. Don Shirley who in the 60s hired a New York City bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in The Bronx, to drive and protect him while on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South.

Mahershala Ali
Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly.

Their relationship is almost adversarial at first from the moment Tony auditions for the eight-week gig which pays $100 a week for the idea of catering to a colored man isn’t initially appealing to Tony. Doc’s not like any of the African-Americans that he has grown up with in New York City, but he takes on the task after the wage is increased. While on the road trip, his constant nattering, crass language and chain smoking irritates Doc and that’s where most of the comedy and humor comes from as both men clash, but as they spend time together in the Cadillac Coupe De Ville driving through the South in 1962, they begin to reveal themselves to one another.

Mahershala Ali
The Don Shirley Trio, L-R: cellist Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), bassist George (Mike Hatton) and Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali)

“It’s not that they become more alike per se, but that they learn how to accept each other and become real allies over time,” Ali shares.  “They come to realize they’re on this journey together, as friends, as sort of teammates, and it’s beautiful to watch that happen.”

The film primarily chronicles the obstacles the duo face together — institutionalized racism to prejudice to sexuality to stereotypes and the film takes its title from “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual travel guide that was published annually from 1936 to 1966, which listed businesses and other establishments that served Black customers.  In the U.S, it became invaluable in the South, where Jim Crow segregation laws varied by county and state, and unofficial rules in “Sundown towns” forbade Black Americans from being out after dark. 

Green Book
Linda Cardellini as Dolores Vallelonga and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly.

 “What really intrigued me about Don Shirley was how complicated he was,” shares Ali, who says he was drawn to the role by the challenge of playing such an enigmatic character.  “There’s so much to pull from in terms of the things he was dealing with, the things he struggled with, the things that he exhibited a degree of excellence in.  The range of things that I was going to be challenged with and tackling –– all that was really attractive to me.”

With fine acting, subtle direction by Peter Farrelly, the period details and dramatic aspects of the story are so well handled.  The infectious humor in the film is organic, generated more out of situations and the contrasts between the characters and every one of these dramatic maelstroms manages to appear fresh.  With dry wit as well as genuine warmth, the movie never resorts to sentimentality and the film also showcases the musical talent of Dr. Donald Walbridge Shirley, the virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger, and performer.

Green Book
Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley

Linda Cardellini plays Dolores, Tony’s wife, the bassist, George, and cellist, Oleg, who together with pianist Shirley comprised The Don Shirley Trio are played by Mike Hatton and Dimiter Marinov. A film that will force audiences to confront preconceptions and unexamined prejudices “Green Book” shows us that friendship is forged through small kindnesses, and laughs shared and is a sure bet for awards come next year.

“This is a perfect film for audiences around the world because it’s about people who are different and who are able to discover their similarities and teach each other things about their differences,” Ali continues.  “They’re able to accept each other. These men come from very, very different worlds and they become allies.”

Samantha Ofole-Prince is an entertainment industry specialist and contributes to Trendy Africa Magazine from Los Angeles. Film photos courtesy of Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

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