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In ‘Green Book,’ a black pianist and his white driver forge a bond amidst Jim Crow

"Green Book," a new film based on the true story of black concert pianist Don Shirley, explores what happens when he hires a white bouncer to drive him through the dangerous Deep South in the Jim Crow era. Director Peter Farrelly explains to Jeffrey Brown how the movie proves that "ultimately, we're all the same."

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  • John Yang:

    Right now, our fall film series concludes with the true story of two men, a black classical pianist and his white driver, and their journey through the segregated South.

    Jeffrey Brown is still at the movies for us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a familiar premise: Two people, different as could be, take to the road together.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    I have never had fried chicken in my life.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Your people love the fried chicken.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    You have a very narrow assessment of me, Tony.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Yes, right? I'm good.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the particulars are new and true.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    This gentleman says that I'm not permitted to dine here.

  • Actor:

    I'm afraid not.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Director Peter Farrelly, best known previously for over-the-top romps like "There's Something About Mary," "Dumb and Dumber," and "Shallow Hal," recounts the initial pitch that won him over.

  • Peter Farrelly:

    True story about a black concert pianist named Don Shirley in 1962, lived above Carnegie Hall, and his record company was sending him on a tour of the South. And he was afraid of going, so he hired a bouncer from the Copacabana, like the toughest bouncer, an Italian guy, fifth-grade education, racist himself, to drive him through the South for protection.

    And I said, it's a home run.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mahershala Ali, an Academy Award winner for his performance in "Moonlight," stars as Don Shirley.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    Don Shirley really liked Tony from the jump, even in his inappropriateness, because he looked at him as almost like a case study, like he wanted to observe Tony Lip.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Viggo Mortensen, known for "Lord of the Rings" and many other films, plays Shirley's driver.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    He just says what's on his mind without — he doesn't have much of a filter.

    Why are you breaking my balls?

  • Mahershala Ali:

    Because you can do better, Mr. Vallelonga.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Their relationship, despite initial apprehension, drives the film.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    You know this is pathetic, right? Tell me what you're trying to say.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    I don't know. You know. I miss her.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    Then say that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The movie's title is taken from the actual Green Book, a travel guide used by African-Americans to find welcoming hotels and restaurants in the era of segregation.

    Ali learned of the book working on the film.

    Were you surprised to learn about it?

  • Mahershala Ali:

    No, not at all. I wasn't surprised to learn about it. But I wasn't aware of its existence.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mortensen said he first learned of the guide through a popular children's book.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    And it showed how there were certain gas stations they couldn't go to and certain places they couldn't eat. And they had to just look at this book all the time just to stay out of trouble.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Here, men of different races must find places to eat and sleep in the Jim Crow South.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    I think people will learn things about that time and…

  • Mahershala Ali:

    The sundown laws, for instance.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Yes, sundown towns.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    It wasn't across the — across the board everywhere throughout the South.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Townships could decide.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    But there were curfews. And if you were black and out, and it was dark, you would get arrested.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Just for being on the street.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In this early scene, over their first shared meal, the tensions and differences, not only over race, but class and education, are apparent.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    How is that?

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Salty.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    Have you ever considered becoming a food critic?

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    No, not really. Why, is there money in it?

  • Mahershala Ali:

    I'm just saying, you have a marvelous way with words when describing food.

  • Peter Farrelly:

    Such opposites. The concert pianist has five doctorates. The other guy's got a fifth-grade education. He's a racist.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And fists?

  • Peter Farrelly:

    He's got street smarts, but he's got — that's it. That's his only smarts. And the other guy's brilliant.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The son of an Episcopal priest and a school teacher, Don Shirley grew up well-to-do in Pensacola Florida, and dreamed of becoming a classical pianist.

    At 18, he had his solo debut with the Boston Pops. But the American color line excluded him from a classical career. Instead, Shirley created his own musical niche, blending jazz, cabaret, spirituals and chamber music into his repertoire.

    He wrote several symphonies, cut many albums, performed around the country, including in the Deep South. As in all road films, the car — in this case, a Cadillac Coupe de Ville — and time driving around in it are crucial.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    Pick it up.

    The fact that they start at two very different places and, by the end of the film, there's a cohesion and a respect for each other.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Respect that eventually finds Shirley dictating letters that Tony sends to his wife back in the Bronx.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    Put this down. "Falling in love with you was the easiest thing I have ever done."

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    Nothing matters to me but you, and every day I'm alive, I'm aware of this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a friendship made possible by the intimate isolation of being on the road.

  • Viggo Mortensen:

    They both kind of allow themselves to hear the other person eventually. They allow themselves to actually hear what the other person is saying, which is the beginning of, you know, communication, the beginning of being able to put yourself in the other person's shoes.

  • Mahershala Ali:

    When you have two people who are that different, and they find themselves in a confined space for a long enough time, they can have a positive and evolving effect on one another.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Although the "Green Book" tells a historical story in at times comic form, all involved saw it speaking to our own times.

  • Peter Farrelly:

    As bad as things are — and they're bad right now — they can get better. And this is a good example of how they get better, when people listen to each other and learn from each other and realize ultimately we're all the same.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Green Book" opens nationwide this week.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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