“You never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity”

Green Book

The film Green Book, released in 2018 and directed by Peter Farrelly, is based on a true story. In 1932, in the United States of Jim Crow Laws, African-American virtuoso pianist Don Shirley set off on a tour of the Deep South accompanied by the man he has hired as his chauffeur and bodyguard, an Italian-American from the Bronx, Tony Lip. The Italian, initially embarrassed by the idea of having to be the protector of an African-American, soon finds himself confronted with the realities of the discrimination that Don Shirley faces.

Historical Context

In the 1930s, the United States was governed by Jim Crow laws, which legalised racial segregation. These laws existed for around 100 years, from the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) until 1968, and were introduced just after the ratification of the thirteenth amendment of the American Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States. At the peak of these laws, public parks were off-limits to African Americans and other public and gathering places, theatres, restaurants, bus shelters, telephone booths, swimming pools, prisons, hospitals and lifts were segregated. African Americans were forbidden to live in neighbourhoods reserved for white people. Marriage and even mixed cohabitation were strictly forbidden. In Atlanta, a different Bible was given to African Americans when they had to lay their hands on it to take the oath. 

It was against this backdrop of widespread segregation across the country that Victor Hugo Green, an employee of the New York postal service, decided to publish a travel guide for African-Americans on road trips every year from 1936 to 1966: the famous “Negro Motorist Green Book”. The guide aimed to prevent African Americans from being turned away from garages, restaurants and hotels, or even being verbally or physically expelled from “whites-only” towns. The guide quickly became the bible for African-American travellers, enabling them to find accommodation, service stations and restaurants that would welcome them throughout their journey. 

The complementary nature of the characters

Set in the heart of a divided United States, the film depicts how the chauffeur and the pianist get to know each other and gradually tame each other’s prejudices. Tony Lip comes from the Bronx and has a popular culture, while Shirley appreciates the refined culture of the circles he frequents thanks to his talent as a musician. Tony Lip is not overtly racist, but he is uncomfortable with the idea of being under the orders of an African-American, while Don Shirley is embarrassed by his chauffeur’s frustrated manners, which he finds very undistinguished, even though they frequent very privileged spheres of American society.

Their friendship eventually grew out of their discussions and confrontations. Tony Lip discovers that at the parties organised by white people to welcome Don Shirley, he is never invited to dinner afterwards, even though he is the highlight of the show. So he has to adapt to his employer’s daily routine by finding him hotels and restaurants that will welcome him, but which are always shabby. Don Shirley, in return, helps Tony Lip write letters to his wife back in New York.

An atypical view of the segregationist period 

Green Book looks at a case that is less well represented in works dealing with the Jim Crow Laws period. It is quite rare to see a case like that of Don Shirley, a virtuoso whose talent gave him access to the most elitist – and hypocritical – spheres of American society at the time. Although he is welcomed for his talent, he is nevertheless restricted to gravitating around these spheres without ever fully integrating them; his status and talent will never be sufficient in the eyes of others.

Translated by Gabriel Capitolo

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