Even before the people chose Green Book at the Toronto Film Festival and anointed Peter Farrelly’s film a surprise Oscar contender, the film survived a road trip as overflowing with twists and turns as the story onscreen. Green Book recreates the concert tour of piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black man touring the Deep South in 1962 with only a Bronx-bred burly Italian driver and temporarily unemployed Copacabana bouncer, Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as security from the dangers of the Jim Crow era. Polar opposites, the two men discover substance beneath each other’s surfaces, and are reshaped by the hard miles they travel together.
The film bears similarities to crowd-pleasing mismatched buddy and road trip comedies like Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Midnight Run and 48 Hrs., and it even has a Christmas theme that makes it theatrically relevant in holiday season. But it veers into a timely tale about tolerance and race, while serving as an unsubtle reminder of the indignities that faced people of color in the South only 50 years ago. During the tour, Shirley played to cultured, educated power broker types in venues that looked like former plantation manors. But they wouldn’t let him use their restrooms, or eat at their restaurants. Determined to upset their notion of what a highly educated and cultured black piano prodigy was capable of, Shirley suffered the indignities and, for the most part, kept his emotions in check.
Tony Lip was handed a copy of The Negro Motorist’s Green Book: For Vacation Without Aggravation and it was his job to find lodging for the virtuoso when white-only establishments wouldn’t accept him. Lip was known as the “best bullsh*t artist in the Bronx”, and his words and fists that quelled trouble at the Copa proved useful, to either talk or fight their way out of trouble. Theirs became a lifelong friendship as, on the road, they revealed their true selves; Vallelonga that he wasn’t just some racist palooka, and Shirley that he wasn’t simply a genius who didn’t identify socially with blue-collar crowds of any color or ethnic makeup.
The film landed five Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and for Farrelly, Ali and Mortensen, as well as the screenplay Farrelly wrote with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie. It has earned Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations for its stars and was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review, and AFI, among others.
What started essentially as a great family story passed like an inheritance from Lip to his son Nick became a crowd-pleasing film only after weathering adversity. It was a story that had to remain untold until the subjects had died, placed in the hands of a hit-making comedy director whose drama debut nobody coveted. And while its story line had the makings of a great road trip film, it had to be careful to avoid the ‘white savior’ movie trope at a moment of unparalleled sensitivity.
Green Book became more than a pipe dream when Vallelonga agreed to write it with Currie, who acted in several of the blockbuster comedies made by Peter and Bobby Farrelly and told him the story. Looking for a dramatic detour while his brother took a personal sabbatical, Peter Farrelly couldn’t get the road trip out of his head.
“A true story of a black concert pianist whose record company sends him on this tour of the South that leaves him nervous enough to hire as his driver the toughest bouncer from the Copacabana in New York City, an Italian guy with a sixth grade education, and they end up finding common ground and becoming lifelong friends,” Farrelly says in recalling the pitch. “I was like, what? The lifelong friend thing is what got me, but it was tricky because what I didn’t want to do was make a movie about race that just leaves you feeling sick and manipulated. I wanted it to be hopeful. I loved the heart in this. How does the friendship happen? Get stuck in a car for two months and you cut down all the walls and the bullsh*t and you find out: I don’t care who you are, people have a lot in common.”
Farrelly first had to get the blessing of the younger Vallelonga, himself a director of small budget films, who saw this as the breakout he’d waited his whole life for. “Whether it was with an iPhone and a couple meatball sandwiches, I planned to direct this movie myself,” Vallelonga says now. “But I felt a click when I met Pete, like maybe my father was kicking me in the back of the head from heaven. I said, let’s do it.”
Vallelonga is burly like his father—he plays a steely-eyed mob boss in a short scene in which Tony Lip has to answer for punching out a made man who started a fight in the Copacabana—but when they made a quick deal with Focus Features president Jim Burke, his inability to control his emotions while pitching his father’s story proved helpful. “We’re pitching and as Nick starts talking about his father, he starts to blubber,” recalls Farrelly. “Jim was like, ‘Wow, this is real, and he bought it in the room.’”
By the time they wrote the script, Burke was gone (he became a producer) and Universal-based Focus lost interest. “The other guys were less enthused than Jim, and their foreign guy said it would be hard to sell a movie about race overseas, which I thought absurd because it’s a buddy movie. But they were kind enough to give it to Jim in turnaround.”
Farrelly says he felt it then, and would feel again, the resistance studios had in gambling on him making the leap to drama the way Rob Reiner and Adam McKay have done. It wasn’t the first time he felt his comedy background marginalizing how he was assessed. His favorite road trip movie is Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. It was where he and his brother got the idea to pair Jeff Daniels with Jim Carrey for Dumb and Dumber. “It had everything in it that I love, including a look that was a real capturing of a slice of Americana, and I loved the colors. It was shot by Tak Fujimoto. He was the first guy I went to on Dumb and Dumber. And he very quickly passed.”
So Farrelly expected the resistance from studios with Green Book. “I told them it was a departure but I get that in their minds, they’re thinking, can he do a departure? Is he going to try to get silly? Is he going to make it broad? He might blow it by trying to get jokey,” Farrelly says. “I didn’t blame them. I spent 25 years doing one kind of movie and all of a sudden I say I can do this. I knew I could do it, but I hadn’t done it before. But then Viggo Mortensen and then Mahershala Ali came into the picture.”
DOC AND LIP
Before all that came the process of what facets of the characters, and which road stories to include in the movie. Co-writer Vallelonga clearly reveres his father, and despite early scenes in which Lip attaches disparaging ethnic tags to black, Chinese and German people, Vallelonga doesn’t remember such language being used in the house, partly because his churchgoing mother would never have tolerated it.
“My father never really said a bad word about anyone,” he says. “What I was trying to show there was leftover residual stuff, from how these guys were brought up, but I don’t remember the N word ever said in front of me and my brother. Only remnants of things in how he talked about certain people. It’s a hard thing to say, because any comment is racist. To say that someone is a racist, to me, that’s like hatred in someone’s heart, and so I’m going to get chopped down for this, but he wasn’t some ugly racist running around with a freaking hood on his head.”
Vallelonga remembers meeting Dr. Shirley as a kid and regarding him as cool. His father took him to Shirley’s loft above Carnegie Hall. “He had this throne, and a grand piano, and he wore this African robe and he sat me on the throne and my father said, ‘Play him something, Doc.’ I thought he was the coolest guy in the world.”
The road trip had changed his father completely. “My father was head of the family and he talked about what it was like in the South,” Vallelonga remembers. “It changed the whole way we were brought up, this simple story of two guys who showed us how people can change if they learn from each other and grow.”
Farrelly needed the contrast to be sharper, but almost everything they put into the story was told by the two characters who shared the car, in audiotape interviews made by Vallelonga before they died, and in the letters from Lip to his wife Dolores — played by Linda Cardellini — which progressively went from rudimentary to swoon-worthy under Dr. Shirley’s tutelage.
“Lip was racist in the way that everybody in New York was a racist at that time,” is how Farrelly saw it. “He used the N-word. He took those glasses and dropped them in the trash if a guy drank out of them. And then he went down south and saw systemic racism and was appalled by it.”
The film tries to thread a needle at a particularly sensitive moment, when movies are being assailed over issues like ethnic and gender-specific casting. Not everyone has bought it, with critical articles claiming the film still falls into the ‘white savior’ trope of cinema, even though it seems Vallelonga benefits as much if not more from his time in the car than did Shirley, who smoothed out the rough spots in his tough guy driver.
The other criticism is that Shirley’s own life is barely revealed beyond what unfolds in the events of the road trip; a point raised by, among others, Shirley’s own family. These brickbats have stung Lip’s son, who has watched members of Shirley’s family dispute parts of the story that Vallelonga took from the extensive interviews he did with both men, on condition that the story stay buried until its subjects passed away. This was important to Shirley, and Vallelonga kept his promise.
That was the only reason the story didn’t surface earlier, when Lip could have gotten any of a number of great filmmakers interested. After his road trip with Dr. Shirley, Lip started acting, playing small roles in The Godfather, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Dog Day Afternoon, Pope of Greenwich Village and Donnie Brasco. His most significant role came as the recurring crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi in The Sopranos. But Lip had left the story behind Green Book like an inheritance for his son.
“I’d made independent films, some OK, some not so much, so I’ve been criticized before,” Vallelonga says. “This has been harder, because it’s personal. There have been attacks on my dad and who he was, and attacks on me personally. What I tried to do was show, through these two people, how we’re all the same, and can come together on a very simplistic level. I wasn’t out to cure racism; I’m just saying this is what happened to these two men and it shows the baby steps toward people coming together. I wanted people to see that and feel good about it.”
He disputes criticisms that the film doesn’t do enough to detail Dr. Shirley’s life and background. “It’s very simple,” Vallelonga insists. “I am a white Italian writer telling a story about my father, along with my co-writers Brian Currie and Pete Farrelly. It’s from that point of view, so it was important to show my father’s background, and how he changed. But what no one seems to understand is that Dr. Shirley only wanted me to tell his story as it related to what happened to him and my father.”
Shirley gave Vallelonga extensive time, based on a further promise to keep the focus on the tour and not the other events of Shirley’s life. “Dr. Shirley said, ‘I don’t want anything else about me in there.’ He didn’t want to tell me about his family. He could’ve had 10 brothers and sisters, and my father didn’t even know that. He didn’t want me to have information about aspects of his personal life. He granted me the right to tell this story of this time between him and my father, nothing else, and he specifically told me, ‘Don’t contact anyone about me. What I’ll tell you will be enough. No one was there but me and your father, so no one can even give you any information about what happened in that car.’”
Ali, who remains proud of the film, reached out to Shirley’s family after its completion to express regret that he hadn’t contacted them, having been unaware Shirley had living relatives. In fact, Shirley told Vallelonga that the biographical information on the back of his records would be all the information he should glean. “I respected the man’s wishes. I didn’t contact anyone because he adamantly told me never to do that, even after he passed away. I struggled with that, but I had enough from him to tell this story, about that trip, and not his life. It is not a biopic, not about his family; he didn’t want that in there and that’s why they were not involved in the story. I honored and respected his wishes.”
Sure, there were creative liberties beyond truncating an 18-month road trip through 48 states and Canada into an 8-week tour of the Deep South. Remember that early scene where Lip tips the Copacabana hatcheck girl to give him the cherished lid of a mob boss, which Lip returns to the mobster to be in his good graces? “It was Sinatra’s hat,” Vallelonga reveals. “He took Frank’s hat to Jilly’s around the corner and returned it to him. We made him a mob guy instead, to show that Lip had the chutzpah to pull something like that off.”
Both Vallelonga and Farrelly said that the racism in the South was scarier than depicted, and that there were other incidents that would have changed the tone or made the movie too long. “There have been comments made by some of the family who said, [Dr. Shirley] never got beaten up,” Vallelonga recalls. “I’m sorry to say he did, and my father had to help him. There were other incidents related to the YMCA type of thing that happened that I left out because I wanted to deal with that issue as respectfully as I could. There were a lot more things that happened with the cops, and we combined two, when my father punched out a cop and that was one time they got arrested. They also got arrested when they were going 25 mph and a cop said they were doing 75. It was a shakedown and the cops were pissed my father was driving this black man. That’s when the Robert Kennedy phone call happened. And a lot more stories like that Christmas concert when Dr. Shirley couldn’t eat there.”
Vallelonga said there was another incident in a hotel bar that refused to serve Dr. Shirley, until Lip promised trouble. “They let him have one drink, but they were saying if we serve him then we have to serve every—I’ll use the word ‘negro’—in the city. My father talked them into it, but then there were cops all over the place, looking for Dr. Shirley and my father. They had to sneak out of there and leave town.”
Adds Vallelonga: “We took some creative license, condensed things and moved some around, but the heart of those stories are all true.”
Another scene—shot but cut from the final film—detailed the moment of JFK’s assassination. The pair were actually in Ontario when Lip learned the President had been shot. As people crowded around the television, Dr. Shirley asked what was going on. “I don’t know,” Lip replied. “Some president got shot.”
Dr. Shirley was so close with the Kennedy family that he called Bobby Kennedy that same day. He told Vallelonga in one of their interviews, “You can imagine how busy that man was, and yet he took the time to talk to me and tell me what was going on.”
“We had that story on tape, told from both sides, and it’s fantastic to hear each perspective,” Farrelly says. “But it would have become too much about Kennedy, and we already had RFK in that one scene.”
The film was shot in Louisiana, and there were plenty of lingering racist attitudes to go around. “We were going to shoot in a bar,” Farrelly recalls. “We scouted it and came out and a black guy, a local, came over and said this bar is a racist bar. I googled it and sure enough, the owner of the bar had thrown a bunch of black guys out, saying, ‘We don’t want your type in here.’ So we didn’t shoot there. We went somewhere else. It wasn’t like it was over, those days. They were still around us and certainly in those kind of areas.”
VIGGO AND MAHERSHALA
Spend an hour with the two actors that lead Green Book and it is hard not to notice in conversation how closely they roll to the way they portrayed their characters. They have an easy rapport, led by Mortensen who is gregarious, funny and anecdotal; Ali a bit more reserved as he takes it all in and measures his words.
Even though they became friendly and expressed a desire to work together when they spent time together two years ago on the Oscar circuit, each actor carefully considered the risks. Mortensen, of Danish descent, would be playing an Italian right out of a Scorsese movie; Ali bore the burden of following his breakout Oscar turn in Moonlight with a role as a black man who required “saving” by his white costar. The script also included a seminal moment that called for Dr. Shirley to eat fried chicken for the first time in his life. They were both aware the subject matter, as fact-based and well-meaning as it was written, had to be executed just right to fit the bill as a satisfying road trip movie, and not something that glorified stereotypes.
“At first we talked a lot about we had to get an Italian or it would ring false,” Vallelonga says about the role of his father. “We didn’t want a bad Joe Pesci imitation. We talked about some great actors. Pete came up with Viggo. He’s one of my favorites of all time. The most iconic Italian American movie character of all time is Don Corleone and he was played by Marlon Brando, who is Irish. Viggo studied me and my family, and got down perfectly the dialect that is Calabrese intertwined with the Bronx. There was a lot of my father on tape and Viggo transformed into him. That is my father up there on the screen.”
Mortensen was a much tougher sell. “I was conscious of [the Italian thing],” he says. “This is a real guy that existed, whose family is still alive and there are some pretty good Italian-American actors out there doing movies and television. You always worry a little, but it depends how far removed it is from me. I mean any character you play, you’re taking on someone else’s point of view. In this case, it was one of those characters that’s really far removed in terms of education and physicality, ethnic background. I’m going to have to do it really well or it’s going to be a mess. You break it down and think, well, how could this be a bad idea? It could be a really bad idea if I do some caricature and Italian Americans go, ‘Jesus Christ, why is he playing that?’”
Farrelly foresaw what eventually happened, that Mortensen could pack on some muscle and beef—he’d gain 45 pounds—and he would look like, as Farrelly describes it, “not a body builder but like a guy on The Sopranos. Those guys are all big. They’re overweight, but you know they have muscles and they could kill you. That’s what he was going for and that’s actually what Tony Lip looked like. My argument was, ‘You did Eastern Promises, which was so immersive a role that this is a walk in the park by comparison. You’ve lived in New York. You know these guys.”
Mortensen kept pushing off Farrelly, while he read the script over and over trying to find a hole so he could say no, but liking it more each time. “I wound up saying, ‘This is incredible, maybe I’d be an idiot not to do it.’ Pete’s doing his first drama and he wouldn’t miscast one of his main two guys, would he? He must know something.”
Still, Mortensen asked for another night to make the decision. He read the script a final time, as he headed out to join his girlfriend who was walking her dog. He read lines out loud as he walked. “People must have thought I’m nuts,” Mortensen recalls. “There’s a lot of actors that people think are crazy escaped lunatics, and they’re just actors working their sh*t out. I’m not even sane at this point, like what the f*ck, look at this crazy tourist, and I’m all sweaty. I get there, she’s sitting with her dog, under those trees. She looks at me, I’m glistening with sweat, and she says, ‘Well you’re going to do this movie.’ I ask her why, and she says, ‘You’re different; you already look like another person. I’ve seen it happen a couple of times before. You’re doing the movie. Stop f*cking around.’”
While Farrelly could see Mortensen becoming Tony Lip, he was more concerned about Ali as Dr. Shirley. “If there was a flaw in Moonlight, it’s that he disappeared too long,” Farrelly says. “I loved his presence, but he comes off so strong; such a physical force. I wanted Dr. Shirley to be a force in a different way, and that was my only concern: can you believe that this guy needs a bodyguard? Because he was so imposing in those other movies. He is 6’2” but when he came in and met with me, he’d lost about 25 pounds for another role and I could see it.”
Ali also loved the script and relished the chance to share the vehicle with Mortensen, but he too struggled with the role. Even subtle racism, or being defined by stereotypes, is something he has seen his whole life. Declining to get specific, he mentions an incident that happened while they launched the film in London as evidence it all doesn’t go away.
“It’s just part of the black experience,” he says. “I am someone who is fortunate enough to have a presence in the culture where I may not experience those things as much as other friends or family or the layperson walking into a store, doing some shopping, who may get followed around or asked questions. But those things [I’ve experienced] don’t necessarily push me towards signing onto something. If anything, I just have a different degree of insight that is specific to that character, as far as what that experience is like.”
He recalls living with his grandfather, who was the president of a local chapter of the NAACP, and fought to secure low-income housing in Alameda, CA. His brother, Ali says, was the Vice Mayor of Oakland, and president of its chapter of the NAACP. “So in my family there was always an awareness around civil rights issues and being a public servant. When I was a young kid, it was all about basketball, but I’ve had my experiences. I got pulled over before and had my car torn apart, or other weird experiences with cops, or asked myself, ‘Why am I in a store, being followed around while I’m shopping?’”
It factored into his understanding of the immaculate wardrobe of Dr. Shirley. “I was named Best Dressed in high school, and part of it was, I liked clothes and liked being neat, but what happens to a young black person like me is, some black men will dress defensively, and that’s what I was trying to articulate a little bit about Don Shirley and speaking about the awareness of your environment and how you present yourself if you feel you’re being observed. How you carry yourself, how you speak, the words you choose to use in certain contexts and environments, it’s all inspired by trying to protect yourself, and at times putting other people at ease simply so you could be at ease. Like, if you can relax, then I can freaking relax. I was born in 1974, but all those things applied to Don Shirley.”
Farrelly leaned heavily on Ali to figure out how to include the chicken eating scene. “I remember how nervous we were about the fried chicken eating scene, and how it could be perceived the wrong way, like, ‘These people love their fried chicken,’” he says. “But we didn’t make that up; it was right from Tony Lip, who says [Don Shirley] didn’t eat fried chicken, and was trying to get him to eat it.”
Says Mortensen: “I love that scene, Tony saying, ‘A Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky, what are the odds?’”
Ali remembered the moment well because it was far more than a funny scene to him. “That’s the one thing you learn, that you will not touch the watermelon and you will not touch the fried chicken, period,” Ali says. “Because I’m not giving you that. You already think that we love fried chicken and watermelon. And in public like that, I’m not touching that fried chicken or the watermelon. So I can totally see how Don Shirley never had fried chicken, because of that stereotype.”
Farrelly says Ali and executive producer Octavia Spencer were invaluable sounding boards. “I needed them to say, ‘This is not right,’” he remembers. “Seeing laws that said, ‘You can’t sit here, or be there, or try those clothes on, or you can’t go into town at night,’ it blew Tony Lip’s mind, and yet he recognized he was the north’s version of that guy. That’s where the chain starts.”
One of Ali’s accomplishments in the film is to look convincing as a virtuoso pianist, even though he doesn’t play piano. He accomplished it with the help of Julliard prodigy jazz pianist Kris Bowers, an unsung hero in the movie. Bowers never heard of Shirley, but was blown away by his music. There was no sheet music for Shirley’s compositions, and Bowers had to break it down himself, note by note. He did such a good job that the film’s score was disqualified from Oscar consideration for being too close to Shirley’s original compositions.
It is Bowers’ hands you see often in the movie, gyrating over the keys and co-writers Vallelonga and Currie said the movie would have been hobbled without him. “I practiced eight or nine hours a day which I hadn’t done since college, to transcribe all the music and record it for Mahershala,” Bowers says. He was surprised to find the actor equally meticulous to pretend to be playing that music. “Our first introductory lesson was mainly to meet, but I showed him the C major scale, and he played it for three hours, so focused on making sure the notes sounded right. Play it wrong, start over. Play it right, start over. He was so dialed-in, right away. Then he talked about posture and how we should sit. Here I am, used to playing jazz piano hunched over like Schroeder. And he would make sure our backs were straight, our posture just right. His attention to detail was remarkable.”
Farrelly wasn’t surprised. “When I sit at that piano I want every piano player in the country to say, ‘He plays the piano just the way I do,’” Farrelly remembers Ali telling him.
“He worked his butt off,” says Farrelly.
Despite all the work and the presence of its celebrated stars, Green Book was a film without a distributor after it was jettisoned from Focus. Its $23 million budget was furnished by Participant Media, after long conversations between Farrelly and top executives about tone gave them confidence he wasn’t treating it as a high concept comedy. The film still needed distribution and strangely the road trip film made a U-turn back to Universal. That was because Farrelly begged his longtime CAA agent Richard Lovett to show it to another of his clients.
“I knew if Steven Spielberg saw this movie he would see the bigger picture,” Farrelly said. “He watched it alone at his house, called me up and said, ‘This is the best buddy movie I’ve seen since Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.’ He said it should be at big Universal, would I be open to that? That’s how we went through Dreamworks and Universal.”
A LASTING BOND
It doesn’t take long into an hour’s interview with Mortensen and Ali to notice they replicate the banter their characters share in Green Book. At one point, they are talking about how none of them can believe that Mortensen is 60—Ali said he looked it up online because he didn’t believe he was more than 50—and all perk up when I note I’d seen Mortensen in a Miami Vice rerun.
And suddenly they are launching into hard luck stories of breaking into the business. Mortensen was originally cast in a big arc on the episode as a slimy villainous circus daredevil aerialist, but had a ganglion cyst removed and his hand blow up, sending him to the hospital. By the time he called to postpone, he was told they’d recast and it was over. He got another chance to play a cop alongside Lou Diamond Phillips, teaming on an undercover bust with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas.
“We were a mirror image of those guys and we’re walking down this long street in Miami, we’re supposed to be throwing a football and the dialogue had to be timed right and trying to make it work,” Mortensen recalls. “After I blew it on two takes, Don Johnson says, ‘On the uptick [snaps his fingers]. This ain’t Hamlet.’ I say, I know, and we laugh even though he went after me in front of the whole crew with ‘This ain’t Hamlet.’ And the scene ends with a bust, right, and we go up to the door, and someone says, ‘You go.’ And then I do, and I get blown to smithereens.” And Lou Diamond gets to be in the whole episode.
All three laugh, and then Ali ups the ante.
“I got this movie, my first feature film, I was the lead, and it was like a week out of grad school,” he remembers. “It was about a young college student who leads an Occupy Wall Street-type movement, with these amazing speeches. I was supposed to play a character who confronts the leader, and I talked my way into the lead role, even though he’s white. We shot 20 hours a day in Wisconsin and I couldn’t wait for the next day. And the movie still hasn’t come out, 20 years later.”
Farrelly asks Mortensen about Witness, the first time he saw the actor onscreen.
“I was an extra and they bumped up my role, and just had me tag along with Alexander Godunov,” Mortensen says. “I had a scene where I’m watching Harrison Ford, and Godunov being jealous, wanting the affection of Kelly McGillis, whose husband just died. And come to think of it, I’m standing there, eating chicken. Peter Weir tells me, ‘You just eat the chicken and watch them.’ So nothing has really changed for me.”
We are back to the movie and I mention the scene in which the black appliance repairmen leave and Tony Lip takes the glasses they drank water from and drops them gently in the trash. He didn’t break them though, and his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) puts them back in the sink. I say Lip’s gesture was to please the Italian family watching him and it reminds me of my own father and how he forbade me to listen to black music when I was 12. I did it anyway, sensing that like Tony Lip, this wasn’t an attitude he believed, but tribally felt obligated to pass along. I said I could see my father being as outraged as was Tony Lip to see real Deep South racism, and maybe as sympathetic as Tony Lip was when Don Shirley was caught in a YMCA with another man and the cops left them handcuffed naked and degraded.
“You think he was just buying into a belief system?” Ali asks.
Yes, I said, and that as a superintendent for the NYC Transit Authority, he would talk about the time he saved a “black guy”, and each time I would drill down and ask why he could not simply say he’d saved a man’s life. It was generational but half-hearted and an easy cycle for me to break raising my own children.
Mortensen and I are nearly the same age, and he brings up his own father, and how he thought Archie Bunker from All In The Family was the funniest character on television.
“My father looked a little like Archie, and I was sitting there watching it with him one day, and he’s got his glass of juice, and laughing and laughing. He’s Danish, but he had been living in the United States a long time, and he’d go, ‘This is the best show!’ I say, ‘Yeah, sure. You do know that you’re just like him, don’t you?’ He answers, ‘What do you mean?’ He had no idea. And I go, ‘Come on.’ Because he would say things about Puerto Ricans and whoever else. Just free-flowing. Maybe not as bad as Tony Lip, but similar. You knew it was what he learned when he came as a young guy in the mid-1950s to the United States. That’s what he heard from the white guys. So his turns of phrase and certain words, that’s what people said. And he’d look at Archie Bunker and say, he’s so funny, he’s such an idiot. I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re just like him and you even look like him.’ And he goes, ‘I am nothing like him.’”
“Isn’t it funny how culture gives us permission to think things are OK for periods of time?” says Ali. “So much of it is about the conversations of the permissions of culture, and how that shifts, and it’s no longer permissible, because of the awareness that it is no longer OK.”
“It starts with some small act by someone, not usually a politician who says, ‘This is not alright, don’t do it anymore,’” adds Mortensen.
Ali: “But what’s happening now, in the last two years in things we see popping up here and there, acts of violence, rallies and protests and people getting physical.”
Farrelly interjects. “Or even the president…”
Ali: “Whoever. We don’t even have to go there with him. But I worry they’re getting permission to feel like, this is OK again. You hope it won’t bleed back into the culture and is given space.”
Mortensen: “I just remembered something about my mother’s mother and this conversation we had, when I was probably 14. She would come over Sunday nights after my grandfather died and my mom would make dinner. This was in the ’70s. I don’t know why it came up, but we are talking about this stuff, and my grandmother says, ‘When the white people went to Africa and discovered it…’ And I go, ‘How did they discover it? There were people there.’ She goes, ‘Well, when they went down and saw what was going on, there were no factories, there was no industry, there was no train tracks, there was no this and that.’ I go, ‘There was no pollution either, right?’ She goes on, ‘Well, and so they went and made that stuff for them… I like black people, they seem very nice, but they’re not as smart or they would’ve had the factories.’ And I got really pissed off, and had this big argument with my grandmother. She says, ‘I don’t know why you’re so upset, these are just the historical facts.’ I say, ‘But they built civilizations. Just like in Georgia, where the whole state was farms. There was a massive farming culture and the Spanish came in and one guy with smallpox wiped them out. There were things happening before those white guys showed up, and they were probably better off in many ways than train tracks.’ I finally had to give up and say, ‘OK, grandma, we’ll just disagree.’”
Ali: “But that’s great that Viggo just shared this, and I’ll tell you why. That is the simplest way to put in context why Don Shirley wanted to go down South, because of knowing that like happened with his grandmother, that was the view and perspective of black people and black culture, and here was an individual who’d had an opportunity to be educated and to pursue his talent and passion, who could go down there and cut right through that point of view. And that view couldn’t hold anymore. How do you react to somebody who could address you in any language that you basically wanted to speak, could play anything for you that you could think of, and could outwit you at every turn? You could not walk away and just say, ‘Well, those people are this way, they’re inferior.’”
Adds Mortensen: “And she was sweet, my grandma.”