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On the Road With Don and Tony: Green Book

Updated on December 13, 2018


Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga earned a reputation for keeping people in line in his work as a bouncer at New York's famed Copacabana. When the Copa closed for renovations in the fall of 1962, Tony didn't realize he had come to the attention of a classically-trained pianist about to embark on a tour. When they settled on a salary and list of things expected from Tony, which included driving and protection, they hit the road in Green Book. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) becomes the employee of Don Shirley (Marershala Ali) as Shirley and his trio embark on a tour of the Midwest and South. As they travel, Don and Tony often don't see eye to eye on things. Don is very educated, articulate, and refined, while Tony is much more street smart. The job keeps the bills paid for his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and their two young sons.

While the Midwest dates go off with few hitches, Tony has to keep a closer eye on Don as the concert dates head to the segregated states of the pre-Civil Rights South. Don tries to do some of the things he's used to doing, but he finds the locals are far less receptive than the audiences. Tony has to confront men who want to hurt Don. At rest stops, Tony finds the time to occasionally write and send his earnings to Dolores, with Don assisting with grammar and content. The further south they go, the more hostility and degrading treatment they face. They sometimes wind up dealing with the police, but the incidents reach a boiling point when an Alabama club wants him to play, but won't let him into their dining room for a pre-concert meal.


The title Green Book refers to the travel guide given to Don and Tony so they'd know which places would accommodate them. The film of the same name is a pleasant based-on-fact look at the realities of the time. The movie shows the overt racism faced by Don, but it also looks at the stereotypes that Don and Tony already have. In a conversation about pop music, Tony is surprised that Don doesn't know about artists such as Little Richard and Sam Cooke. While he keeps certain language in check on the road, Tony has heard and used many of the derogatory terms used to describe men like Don. The introspection helps to change the relationship between Don and Tony as their business arrangement grows personal. Director Peter Farrelly also co-wrote the script with a duo that includes Tony Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga. Some moments feel a bit exaggerated with regards to the mens' knowledge (Shirley, in fact, had a Top 40 record), but Farrelly compensates with the lessons Don and Tony learn along the way.

The chemistry between Ali and Mortensen is outstanding. Ali, as Don, strives for perfection in every part of his image, from his stylish clothing to his insistence on drinking Cutty Sark and playing Steinway pianos. He expects Tony to not only make sure his contract stipulations get met, but he insists Tony meet other standards as well. At a roadside shop that sells food and souvenirs, Tony picks up one of the colored stones they sell from the ground. Don insists that Tony either purchase the stone or return it. Don also finds out what it's like to live in states that openly practice segregation, regardless of level of economic success. Mortensen, as Tony, is a man caught in between two worlds of his own. Most men like Tony wouldn't have accepted Don's job offer, but Tony realizes his alternatives are limited. He knows the complications of letting his mob-connected acquaintances at the Copa do him a favor during his layoff. In his job, he has also learned the subtler mob tactics, and combines them with the powers of persuasion that gave Tony his nickname to work with law enforcement. Mortensen also gets to show a little bit of his humorous side, especially in the scene where Don tries to explain his Orpheus album to Tony. Cardellini also turns in a nice performance as the wise and devoted Dolores.


Green Book is a winning road trip, as two men get lessons about the lives of others who are not like them. Some of the lessons are not easy, but others come as welcome surprises. This journey mirrors the one that rest of the country was experiencing. Obligations remained their top priority, but the time together helped to make the tour more than just business. Don Shirley and Tony Lip may have found themselves in very different social circles, but each man received a lesson in people who were not like them. Lessons like that are rare, and still seem to be, as people look for their safe space rather than try to learn about the world around them.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Green Book 3.5 stars. The world is not just black and white.

Green Book trailer

© 2018 Pat Mills


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