Green Book, a fascinating look at facet of Black history

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in Green Book.

Green Book is a new comedy-drama film about a tour of the Deep South in the 1960s by Jamaican classical pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) and New York bouncer Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), who served as Shirley’s driver and security.

Directed by Peter Farrelly, the screenplay was written by Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga, as well as Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. The film gets its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century guidebook for African-American road trippers, written by Victor Hugo Green.

When “Tony Lip” (Mortensen), a bouncer at a New York nightclub from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South during segregation, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans, due to racial discrimination issues and Jim Crow laws, such as whites-only garages, restaurants and hotels refusing services. Confronted with overt blatant racism and 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.

The $23 million, 130 minute film is a rated of PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. Green Book has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 84% based on 85 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10; their consensus: “Green Book takes audiences on a surprisingly smooth ride through potentially bumpy subject matter, fueled by Peter Farrelly’s deft touch and a pair of well-matched leads.” The film has won several awards in film festivals.

Based on Historical Fact: The Negro Motorist Green Book

The Negro Motorist Green Book. (photo: Wikipedia)

The Negro Motorist Green Book (at times styled The Negro Motorist Green-Book or titled The Negro Travelers’ Green Book) was an annual guidebook for African-American road trippers, commonly referred to simply as the Green Book.

It was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, during the era of Jim Crow laws, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against non-whites was widespread. Although pervasive racial discrimination and poverty limited black car ownership, the emerging African-American middle class bought automobiles as soon as they could, but faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences along the road, from refusal of food and lodging to arbitrary arrest.

In response, Green wrote his guide to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans, eventually expanding its coverage from the New York area to much of North America, as well as founding a travel agency. Many Black Americans took to driving, in part to avoid segregation on public transportation. Black Americans employed as athletes, entertainers, and salesmen also traveled frequently for work purposes. African-American travelers faced hardships such as white-owned businesses refusing to serve them or repair their vehicles, being refused accommodation or food by white-owned hotels, and threats of physical violence and forcible expulsion from whites-only “sundown towns.” Green founded and published the Green Book to avoid such problems, compiling resources “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”

From a New York-focused first edition published in 1936, Green expanded the work to cover much of North America, including most of the United States and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. The Green Book became “the bible of black travel during Jim Crow,” enabling black travelers to find lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that would serve them along the road. It was little known outside the African-American community.

Shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed the types of racial discrimination that had made the Green Book necessary, publication ceased and it fell into obscurity. The listings focused on four main categories – hotels, motels, tourist homes (private residences, usually owned by African Americans, which provided accommodation to travelers), and restaurants. They were arranged by state and subdivided by city, giving the name and address of each business. For an extra payment, businesses could have their listing displayed in bold type or have a star next to it to denote that they were “recommended.”