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Movie Review: Oscar winner is painful and endearing

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Emily J. Sullivan
Staff Writer

Like some mid-20th Century white families vacationing via road trips with maps and yellow pages, African-Americans used the Green Book, published from 1936-1966, to find establishments that were welcoming to non-white tourists and travelers.

In the three-Oscar winning film “The Green Book,” Italian-American Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen, is down on his luck after a string of short-lived employment flukes and failures. He is presented with a business opportunity to drive and accompany an African-American classically trained pianist throughout his two-month tour of the Deep South. 

Vallelonga, a racist tough-guy who lived in the Bronx his entire life, had never heard of the Green Book. 

Together, the unlikely duo embark on a remarkable journey in which stereotypes are crushed, personal transformations flourish and a complicated friendship blossoms. 

The film is simultaneously painful and endearing, horrific and sweet. 

The story, based on true events and a real life friendship between Shirley and Vallelonga, is an easier-to-swallow depiction of only a fraction of the monstrosities of a Jim Crow era existence. 

In the end, the overwhelming value of the film can be characterized as the beauty that can be born out of disaster and the power of learning from one another, especially those who are most different from ourselves. 

Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, is a brilliant pianist that lives above Carnegie Hall. 

He is the frontman of an impressive world-class trio that tours the country playing concerts for the wealthy upper-class. 

Shirley is repeatedly confronted with the complications of being praised by white American elites in one aspect of his life and degraded and demoralized in the other. 

He is welcomed to play on their stages and entertain white audiences but refused a seat in their restaurants. 

He is flooded with thunderous applause, only to be shunned to a filthy outhouse rather than offered the in-house restroom. 

It is through these persistent attacks on Shirley’s basic treatment as a human that Vallelonga’s eyes are opened and assumptions challenged. 

Controversy regarding the film’s Oscar win has been trending in the news and social media. The New York Times called it a “racial reconciliation fantasy.”

But I think the film’s three wins, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Picture were well deserved. 

Emily J. Sullivan can be reached at

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