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Green Book: A must-see movie...for many reasons

Green Book: A must-see movie…for many reasons
by
Chuck Cascio
www.chuckwrites@yahoo.com

 greenbook 0hero-h 2018    

 

     Occasionally an artistic endeavor—whether a movie, painting, book, poem, or something more complex or even more simple—will drive itself deep into our minds, conjuring memories of what was, or thoughts of what could be, or questions about why things were as they were or are as they are. The movie Green Book, which is now in theaters around the country, is one such powerful endeavor. Here’s why:

    Those of us of a certain age remember the 1950s and '60s. For me, those were transformative decades, moving me from childhood through my teen years. Living in Virginia for most of that time, and visiting my birthplace of New York City regularly, I distinctly recall a cloud over society, something that became more clear as I grew older, something I could eventually identify as racism.  

     To get a sense of what those times were like, or to remind yourself of them, see Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Brace yourself for an emotional ride through America as it was in 1962. And as you watch and laugh and perhaps cry, ask yourself the following: 

     When it comes to understanding those we consider "different," is there any substitute for interacting with them, listening to them, putting ourselves in their place, understanding their circumstances, beliefs, values? 

     And at the same time, ask: 

     How did we ever tolerate this in the United States...and would we ever accept this as the norm again?

     Green Book is the true story of an incredibly unlikely relationship between a master African American musician—the wealthy and well-educated Dr. Don Shirley—and his protector/driver Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, a classic tough guy from the Bronx streets. In a nutshell: Shirley is about to embark on a concert tour in the deep South in 1962. He hires tough Tony to drive him to gigs in racially charged cities throughout Jim Crow Country.

     During their eight weeks of travel, the two men gain insights into one another, society, and themselves. 

     Billed most often as a "dramedy," the movie is muchmore than that. The events in it, such as the acceptance of Dr. Shirley as a highly regarded entertainer performing in ritzy white venues where he is nonetheless barred from eating in their restaurants or using their restrooms, are not over-dramatized. They are portrayed instead as the reality of that era: This is how things were. 

     The men react to those realities sometimes with anger, other times with laughter, often with deep-rooted pain, and almost always with new insights brought about, in part, by the extremes of their relationship and by the fact that they must spend hours together in a car.

     What kept running through my head as I watched, and what lingers still, were recollections of what I had seen, but did not always react to, while growing up in Virginia: The "Colored Only" restrooms and water fountains; the "Colored Only" schools; the off-the-cuff inappropriate references to African Americans tossed about by many adults and kids. 

     I remembered the time my mother was accosted by another white woman who was appalled that I, a white child of five years old or so, was about to drink from a water fountain labeled "Colored Only." The woman yanked me away. My mother asked her what she was doing. 

     The woman said, "Your son is about to drink from a Colored's fountain. That's disgusting." 

     To which my mother said, "My son doesn't know about black and white; he only knows that he's thirsty." Mom then turned to me and said, "Go ahead and drink, honey. Don't listen to her." 

    Years later, at age 16, I worked away from home in the summer at a folk club in Virginia Beach that featured performers from all over the country. Part of my job was to reserve hotel rooms for visiting performers and then to escort them to the hotel when they arrived. For one performer, an African American, I rode with him to the hotel where I had reserved his room. When we approached the check-in counter, the clerk quickly glanced at us and then at the reservation list and told us that no reservation had been made. I said I had booked it myself and reminded him of all the other acts I had booked there. The clerk just kept shaking his head, saying, "No, no reservation and no rooms available anyway, so you'd better go somewhere else." 

     The performer pulled me aside and said softly, "I know what's going on. Let’s go. I’ll find a place where I can stay." We drove about 30 minutes inland, where we eventually found a rundown motel with a big sign that said, "Coloreds Welcome." The performer said, "See, this is where I get to stay." He wasn't complaining; he was resigned to the fact that this is how life was. 

     However, I did something then that I am sure was part of my mother channeling through me. I said, "We have room in our house. Come and stay with us." 

     I drove off with him and he stayed with me and my three roommates. Whenever he entered the house with us, any neighbors around stared, shook their heads, and muttered. 

     Green Book brought back so many other disturbing memories: The fact that some restaurants had two menus, one for whites and another much more expensive one for blacks, so the managers could say that they did not refuse to serve African Americans, they just had to charge more to make the kinds of food “those people” liked...if they weren't already "sold out" of that food. 

     Or the time that an African American friend and I waited to be seated at a nearly empty restaurant. The host glanced at us and said, "We are expecting a very big crowd, so hold on for a few minutes so I can see if any seats will be available." After waiting several minutes, I noted to the host that the restaurant was virtually empty. He grudgingly seated us, but we never received a menu, never had a server stop by our table, and when we finally walked out, not a single staff member acknowledged us.

    Green Book reminded me of a part of society that should be buried in the past...but I know it is not. 

     See the movie for yourself. See what memories it brings. And if you would like to share those memories with me, please email me at chuckwrites@yahoo.com. I will not publish anything you send without first discussing it with you and getting your permission. However, though I am interested in hearing your thoughts, mostly I hope you will go see the powerful Green Book and think about where society was then, how to keep that as part of our past, and how people can change. 

Copyright Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved.