In 2018, the film “Green Book” was launched under the direction of Peter Farrelly. This film is based on true events. It tells the story of a concert tour of the pianist Don Shirley during the 1960s. He travels through South, while accomanied by his driver and bodyguard, Tony Vallelonga, through the South of the United States.
The film is named after a guidebook (The Negro Motorist Green Book) which was used at the time to find out where African Americans could stay when traveling.
It is a very well-structured film that highlights the racism in American society at the time and also shows the value of art in changing consciences and bringing human beings closer together.
The Green Book film has received numerous awards and honorary distinctions. It has received good reviews from both specialists and audiences.
Don Shirley – Green Book (2018)
The movie Green Book begins with Tony Vallelonga as a strongly opinionated character with few manners and prejudices toward African-Americans. This was typical of a large part of the society of his time. Tony worked as a security guard at a nightclub and lost his job, so he is receptive to other offers.
The first meeting is tense because Tony expects to meet a “white doctor.” The fact that Don Shirley is a musician (and not a doctor) but African-American throws him off and shows an initial rejection and distancing.
However, the other offers he receives are not very convincing. Don Shirley accepts the (generous) proposal that Tony had made as a condition.
From here, they embark on a journey that will be difficult at times but one of discovery. Simply said, done by human contact by the interaction of the characters.
Tony and Don – Green Book (2018)
The relationship between the two is strained at first. Tony’s unrefined manners, coupled with his superficiality, sometimes get on Don’s nerves. On the other hand, Tony is puzzled and, to some extent, repulsed by this “colored” man who is so refined and questions him about things he has never considered.
In the first of the concerts, Tony attends as a spectator, he is amazed by the music Don plays. As Hegel would say, Don’s musical interpretation awakens in Tony’s “deep echoes of a reality that is veiled to us” (Hegel, 1989).
This opens a space of sympathy between the two that will grow throughout the journey. However, Tony will not undergo a kind of “conversion” that will make him become another person. Rather the changes made are subtle and progressive throughout the film.
Changes – Green Book (2018)
The artistic dimension is not only shown in Dr. Shirley’s concerts. Tony wrote frequently to his wife (“because it’s cheaper”). Don notices this and convinces Tony to write more romantic, less prosaic letters, which will immediately have a positive impact on his wife’s heart. In time, Tony discovers this world of ideas and becomes more willing to write to his wife from the heart.
Don will also open up to pop culture (African-American and also to other less cultured styles than the ones he was used to), and to more basic customs, with less protocol or rigidity. Don confesses to being alone in life and learns to enjoy the small moments, the simple things that simple people do.
Parallel to this growth of the aesthetic dimension that occurs in both of them and to this personal approach, Don’s interest in inculcating in Tony a development of his moral values is shown. Art, according to Hegel, vivifies and strengthens the moral will (Hegel, 1989).
Therefore, when he steals a jade stone from a store, Don reprimands him. He corrects him when he throws garbage on the road and teaches him that even in the most difficult situations in life, every man always has his dignity left. No matter how bad things get for you, “dignity always prevails.”
Our dignity is not lost in the face of contempt or lack of recognition from others. It is something that every human being carries “by nature” and that no one can take away from you.
The growth is not just in the two major players. The host cities of the American South welcome Don as the “great colored pianist”. This makes them feel generous and they admire with pleasure how this man, against all odds, is a genius in the interpretation of the classics “written for whites”.
Numerous racist and unfair attitudes are observed. It is an inertia in these people that has strong cultural roots. Many are puzzled or angered by Don’s attitude. He is not submissive or docile in the face of injustices (which they are probably unable to see because they are immersed in this culture).
Possibly, this experience will also have an impact on them, it will probably be difficult for them to assimilate, but it is the necessary beginning for a change in them. A change towards the recognition of the other, which they place in the minority, in the different, in the inferior.
Confrontation – Green Book (2018)
After one of these expletives, Tom exclaims, “I don’t understand, how can he smile and shake their hands like that?” to which one of his assistants replies, “Dr. Shirley could have stayed in the North […] for three times the money. But he chose this.”
As Schopenhauer (2009) said, we see here genius detached from interest because it is focusing on pure knowledge. At another point, this assistant will say: “[…] being a genius is not enough, you have to have the courage to change people’s hearts”.
This brings us back to the fact that the aesthetic dimension not only allows us to be better ourselves, but it is a round trip. With the education of affectivity, we will improve, but it is also important to transmit these new teachings, which go beyond logical reason and words. On this journey, Don sets out to challenge the racism of the Southern states.
By confronting these people with reality (there are people of African-American origin who can be excellent musicians, excellent intellectuals, but also excellent people). Therefore, the distinction based on ethnicity becomes absurd, and it is these people who realize this with every atonement they make to Don.
But, in addition, Don also chose Tony as his coachman and bodyguard. He wanted him because he was someone who could protect him, but he was also someone who had to grow as a person, and this is something that is seen to happen throughout the film. As every interaction is between two or more people, Don too is transformed.
At another point, Tony points out that “Anyone can play Beethoven or Chopin, but your music, what you do, only you can do,” to which Don replies, “But not everyone can play Chopin. Not like me.” Because what is relevant in art is what is expressed through it.
There is something in the work of art that transcends it, that is why Schopenhauer (2009) would say that art helps us to transcend our individuality. Each work of art is updated before each artist, before each spectator who returns to it. It (the work of art) thus becomes something alive that is updated and evolves, and this is what makes it immortal, that is, makes it a classic work.
Because a classic work, according to Gadamer (1977), is something that gathers itself historically in an aesthetic experience.
Finally, when Tony returns home for Christmas and is with the family, he is a different person, his relatives see him changed. He no longer follows the jokes that are made about the “nigro” and is sorry that his friend Don spends Christmas alone.
Don finally decides to spend Christmas Eve with Tony and his family, who welcomes him with a hug, something that surprises his wife, but that, at the same time, pleases her. The change has already taken place and is beginning to show in the environment.
Transcendence – Green Book (2018)
The film interweaves, in a masterful yet simple way, several stories of enormous transcendence.
I would add, as a final thought, that Don Shirley refuses to play the game of the Southern States. As seen in the film, this musician has been educated in the former Soviet Union. As a result, his mental schemas about the domination of citizens of Anglo-Saxon origin over citizens of African-American origin are something that does not fit with him.
He highlights several times in the film that he feels that he does not belong to any world. He finds himself rejected by African Americans because they see him as an anomaly. As someone outside their culture and their expected patterns of behavior in that particular society. Nor is he accepted in the white world, because they see him as a “negro” who plays “white people’s music” well.
To which world, then, does Don belong? The answer, from our cultural and historical distance, is obvious: to the world of humans, for which he is endowed with inherent dignity and the right to respect and recognition, by the mere fact of being human.
But in that particular cultural and historical context, the dynamics were different. Don refused to “play” the role assigned to him. He thus becomes a “spoilsport.” Not because he does not know the rules, but because he refuses to participate in them.
This fact dislocates the participants of the sad social game that is taking place. For this reason, they sometimes show aggressive attitudes and behavior towards him (“We are going to show you how things are here”, they will tell him on more than one occasion).
But Don stands his ground and teaches everyone that sometimes there are games that should not be played. If not all players follow the rules of the game, the game becomes diluted. It loses its strength and meaning. In a way, “the party is over”, and this has an immediate impact on the daily lives of all the people involved in this context. This is what Don Shirley’s courageous gamble in the film consists of.
Reality – Green Book (2018)
And finally, what happens to us? The film Green Book is based on real events, but of course, it has a fictional component that its director Peter Farrelly knows how to develop masterfully.
Racism has existed and continues to exist in good parts of American society, and unfortunately, in many other parts of the world. Farrelly presents us with an extremely unjust situation that shocks our conscience. How can we allow something like this to happen to a human being? He shows us these injustices in the face of a human being, who is also aesthetically, morally, and culturally exceptional.
Other human beings who do not have these qualities will deserve the same respect. Farrelly shows us these characteristics so that we can better empathize with the character.
It matters little here what did and did not happen. In reality, Don and Tony toured in 1962. What is relevant is that, as we watch the film, we are presented with a world with rules (“a game”) that is unacceptable. All the actors seem naturally destined to follow these rules. There is one who refuses, and we are stirred. It invites us to action. It leads us to say “We can’t tolerate something like this happening anymore”. And this is where it comes full circle.
The artist (Farrelly and the rest of the participants in the film) shows us a concrete reality. In a place and time relatively distant from us. This film (the work of art) becomes meaningful when it reaches us and challenges us, moves us to change, in our society and concrete context, in short, transforms us. It is what Gadamer (1977) calls a “transformation into a construction”.
The merely physical aspects of the work of art give way to its artistic dimension, so that the work becomes autonomous, goes beyond itself, dissolves the everyday world, and transforms it.
Conclusion – Green Book (2018)
This film, like any other good work of art, has this transformative power. Especially, when we approach it with our playful attitude (in Schiller’s sense). It opens us to change, it enables us to balance reality and form, and it educates us aesthetically.
For, according to Schiller (2016), “freedom lies in the united action of its two natures.” Although the distance that separates matter from form is infinite, this is not a problem, because beauty is not limitation, but infinity. It is precisely from the opposition between both needs that freedom arises (Schiller, 2016).”
Gadamer, H. (1977). Verdad y método. Salamanca: Sígueme.
Hegel, G. (1989). Lecciones de Estética. Barcelona: Ediciones 62.
Schiller, F. (2016). Cartas sobre la educación estética del hombre. Cuyo (Argentina): Universidad Nacional de Cuyo.
Schopenhauer, A. (2009). El mundo como voluntad y representación. Buenos Aires: Losada.