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‘Green Book’ movie has important messages

November 30, 2018

In this day of loud and wild movies with gratuitous violence, high body counts and cosmic escapades, we often search for films that have real substance. “Green Book” is just that kind of movie.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this saga is that it is based on actual events. Some movie critics indicated “Green Book” was just too nice, unrealistic and the situations depicted couldn’t really be authentic.

There is a degree of sentimentality and hopefulness in this movie, but that does not detract from its message or entertainment quotient. In our world of constant crisis, polarization and hate for those who don’t look or think like us, this film is a breath of fresh air.

This movie is based on the lives of two New York City men whose backgrounds, strengths and expectations were light-years apart. In 1962, Dr. Don Shirley, a brilliant, eccentric and classically trained African-American pianist and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a recently unemployed Italian-American nightclub bouncer with a wife and two kids, were connected by their needs and life events.

In a Time magazine article, Nick Vallelonga, one of the film’s writers and Tony’s son, explained that the only variance from the actual events is that the movie takes place over a two-month period; the actual events occurred over a year-and-a-half time span.

Nick reported he spent much time with his father and Dr. Shirley, who became lifelong friends. Years ago, Nick told the pair he wanted to make a movie about them, and while both agreed, Dr. Shirley would not permit it to be made during his lifetime.

He is said to have told Nick, “You tell exactly the truth, but you’re going to wait until I pass.” Both of the men died just months apart in 2013.

I should probably give a spoiler alert, as some of things in this column are central to the movie. Yet, I think the title “Green Book” should be left for the moviegoer to discover.

Seeing this film is important because we live in an age when many people are too young to recall what it was like for African-Americans before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and question whether racial discrimination was ever “so bad.” Even today, many Americans deny the reality that there are places and situations where being African-American is frightening and dangerous.

According to published information, the real Donald Shirley grew up in Pensacola, Florida. His mother was a teacher and his father a minister. As a young child, he was recognized as a musical prodigy and played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor with the Boston Pops at the age of 18.

Despite admired soloist performances with symphony orchestras in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, white conductors who viewed Shirley as extremely gifted insisted that he not perform classical pieces, but rather stick to playing pop, jazz and church music. That what was expected and accepted from people of his race in the mid 20th century.

Sure, there are some predictable and humorous scenes. Yet, there are also those that remind us that not only do all people have strengths and weaknesses, but all people are worthy of love, understanding and appreciation.

While it is a bit cliche, we are reminded that if we have a chance to really know someone from a background unlike our own, we might actually learn to like that person. When you see “Green Book,” the messages will be clear.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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