The Green Book’s Yellow Lining

Aki Marceau
Nov 26, 2018 · 3 min read
Pell Street, Chinatown, New York, circa 1899. (Scott Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The Green Book documents the true-to-life journey of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen, an Italian American bouncer turned personal driver of musical savant Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali. Taking place over eight weeks in the early 1960s, Tony & Dr. Shirley’s relationship evolves beyond one of transactional value to a friendship built on trust and camaraderie.

I agree with the numerous perspectives (here, here, and here) that show how this film glossed over the complexity of the Black American experience, adding a saccharin quality to the Jim Crow south.

But admittedly, I liked the film.

With most stories and in this case historiographies, the position and experiences of the person telling the story matters as much as the story itself. Co-written by Nick Vallelonga, son of the real Tony Lip, he gives credibility to the narrative surrounding Tony’s story, even though he chose not to select an actor of Italian decent to play his father. Director, Peter Farrelly, and co-writer, Brian Hayes Currie, certainly add storytelling capacity, but what they overlook with a team of three white men is the credibility and ability to the develop and portray the Black experience in the early 1960s. This experience is as much a character in this film as Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley, and the only one with qualities that are alive and well in today’s vividly divided country.

Much of what attracted me to the Green Book, however, was the development of New York City. Sprinkled throughout the film were hints at the ethnic makeup of its neighborhoods. Tony mentions “hymies” at the corner store, Irish cops, and of course his complex, family-centered, but uncomfortably racist and corrupt Italian neighborhood. Nick Vallelonga is equipped to share the subtleties of New York, as only a multi-generational New Yorker can.

In his development of New York City, the seemingly purposeful inclusion of three working class Asian characters surprised me. These characters represent three distinct waves of Asian immigration, prior to the Immigration Act of 1965. Amit, Dr. Shirley’s footman played by Iqbal Theba, may have benefitted from his association with Dr. Shirley and allowed entry into the country by way of the 1946 Luce Celler Act which granted select South Asians and Filipinos immigration and naturalization.

There are two Chinese gentlemen with seemingly different immigration backgrounds. Tony later describes one of them as a chink, who earlier scurried past Tony after interviewing to be Dr. Shirley’s driver. Given the derogatory nature of Tony’s perception of him, he may have been a recent immigrant who entered after the Magnasun Act of 1943 which lifted many of the restrictions of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Tony later stops by his local bar to vent to a bartender named Bobby, played by David An. To Tony, he seems to “pass” more as American and shows no indication of an accent, suggesting that he may be 2nd or 3rd generation Chinese, with parents who immigrated as early as the1800s or were early beneficiaries of the Magnasun Act.

The inclusion of Amit, Bobby and the Chinese driver is important, despite their minor roles and lack of character depth. In a post Crazy Rich Asians world, it may be easy to forget how Hollywood has historically masked Asian characters with white actors and omitted hints of the Asian American story from American historical dramas. The inclusion of Asian Americans alongside Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants as part of 1960’s New York demonstrates the Green Book’s nuanced understanding of New York’s immigrant history. If only that could have extended past the Mason Dixon line.

***

After I published this, David An, the actor who played Bobby, posted this on Phil Yu’s (aka Angry Asian Man) Facebook page in reaction to this piece.

Wow. Love the history context.

“Bobby” told to me by Nick V. was a real person. An Asian man who ran a mob-familiar Italian Restaurant…in the 60’s. The fact that he could command that room, and take no crap from anyone was what compelled me to go after the role.

Aki Marceau

Written by

Mobility, Equity & Asia Pacific @akibomb

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