Gulf News

A FRIEND IN NEED

Os­car-win­ner Ma­her­shala Ali re­turns with an­other buz­zwor­thy role in ‘Green Book’, a film about friend­ship set in pre-Civil Rights Amer­ica, out in the UAE to­day

- By Son­aiya Kel­ley

Roughly half­way through Green

Book, about one of the un­like­li­est friend­ships of the preCivil Rights era, Ja­maican pi­ano prodigy Don Shirley (Ma­her­shala Ali), ex­plains to his Ital­ian Amer­i­can driver, Frank “Tony Lip” Val­le­longa (Viggo Mortensen), that though he’s found suc­cess play­ing pop­u­lar mu­sic, he was trained for the clas­si­cal stage.

“Trained?” says Val­le­longa. “What are you, a seal? Peo­ple love what you do. Any­one can sound like Beethoven or Joe Pan or them other guys you said. But your mu­sic, what you do, only you can do that.”

“Thank you, Tony,” Shirley says pa­tiently. “But not ev­ery­one can play Chopin, not like I can.”

The scene, one of the film’s most poignant in­sights into the mu­si­cian’s con­flicted feel­ings about his iden­tity and legacy, was not al­ways writ­ten that way.

“Dr Shirley used to just say, ‘Thank you, Tony,’ and that’s it, that’s the scene,” re­called Ali over lunch. “Like, ‘I ap­pre­ci­ate it, you’re right. Peo­ple love my mu­sic and de­spite the racism, what I be­came as a re­sult is al­right, I’m cool with it.’ And that scene al­ways ate at me. It just didn’t ring true to me as a black per­son. It felt like what I would call a ‘TV mo­ment.’”

Af­ter watch­ing Nina Si­mone’s Net­flix doc­u­men­tary What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?, Ali was able to pin­point just what it was that bugged him about the scene and brought it to di­rec­tor Peter Far­relly.

“I spoke at length with him about Nina Si­mone in that, as much as we love and ap­pre­ci­ate her mu­sic, she didn’t be­come who she wanted to be­come, she be­came who she was al­lowed to be­come,” he said of the leg­endary dive-bar chanteuse, who’d orig­i­nally had de­signs on be­ing a clas­si­cal pi­anist. “The fact is, as a per­son, as an in­di­vid­ual know­ing and feel­ing the cre­ativ­ity within her­self, Nina Si­mone lived and died not be­ing what she wanted to be. I think that that is true for so many black artists,” said Ali.

OS­CAR BUZZ

Green Book, out in the UAE on Thurs­day, is al­ready be­ing floated as a po­ten­tial

“I’m just con­stantly look­ing for some­thing that feels ap­pro­pri­ate for me at the time. I don’t ever want to do some­thing I’ve al­ready done.” MA­HER­SHALA ALI | Ac­tor

best pic­ture nom­i­nee af­ter claim­ing the Os­car-pre­dic­tive Peo­ple’s Choice Award in its world pre­miere at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Ali’s por­trayal of the emo­tion­ally tor­tured Shirley is all but guar­an­teed to earn him a sup­port­ing ac­tor nod. If so, it would mark his sec­ond Academy Award nom­i­na­tion, af­ter a break­out turn in Barry Jenk­ins’ daz­zling

Moon­light, for which he took home the tro­phy in 2016. But awards con­sid­er­a­tion, though ap­pre­ci­ated, couldn’t be less of a driv­ing force for the ac­tor.

“We’re not go­ing into it like, ‘OK, so when we look at the Os­car con­tenders, these films need to have these boxes checked,’” he said. Rather, the 44-yearold just wants to con­tinue tak­ing on roles that are dif­fer­ent from those he’s played over the course of 20 years in the in­dus­try.

“For me, it’s about the di­ver­sity of my ex­pe­ri­ence as an ac­tor,” he said. “I’m just con­stantly look­ing for some­thing that feels ap­pro­pri­ate for me at the time. I don’t ever want to do some­thing I’ve al­ready done, I’m not in­ter­ested in that at all.”

Though Far­relly calls him an “un­be­liev­able ac­tor,” the di­rec­tor was hes­i­tant to cast Ali be­cause of the tonal dif­fer­ence be­tween the out­wardly pow­er­ful drug-dealer Juan in

Moon­light and the more del­i­cate, in­ter­nal re­straint of Shirley.

“He was such an im­pos­ing fig­ure in

Moon­light,” said Far­relly. “He was big and strong and re­ally a force. And Dr Shirley is not that. I thought maybe Ma­her­shala might be too big a fig­ure for this film, but when I met him, and he talked about who this guy was, he quickly be­came him. It was such an im­pres­sive per­for­mance.”

“This is go­ing to sound like [ex­ple­tive], but it was an hon­our and a plea­sure [work­ing with Ali],” said Mortensen. “For me, the foun­da­tion of good act­ing is al- ways good re­act­ing. I’m look­ing at his face and there are all these in­cred­i­ble, minute, beau­ti­ful re­ac­tions. Like, so pre­cise, his work. It was re­ally dif­fi­cult to keep a straight face be­cause he was so hi­lar­i­ous and get­ting per­fect tim­ing.”

The painstak­ing per­for­mances of the two leads el­e­vate the film’s fairly sim­ple premise: In 1962, Shirley, a dis­tin­guished pi­anist, pre­pares to em­bark on a con­cert tour that will take him through the Deep South. He knows he needs to hire some mus­cle, which is where Lip comes in, a racist bouncer who just lost his job at Man­hat­tan’s Copaca­bana night­club.

UN­LIKELY FRIENDS

Over the course of the trip, Shirley and Val­le­longa be­come friends, a dy­namic which has earned the film com­par­isons to The Odd Cou­ple and deemed a “re­v­erse Driv­ing Miss Daisy,” a de­scrip­tion that ran­kles Ali.

“There’s ab­so­lutely no such thing, it’s im­pos­si­ble,” he said. “Be­cause in ei­ther sce­nario, if you make the white per­son the driver or if you make the white per­son the pas­sen­ger, the white per­son is still free in so­ci­ety. That’s like say­ing, ‘Now the white per­son is black in this sce­nario.’ The white per­son is never black in any sce­nario. The switch just doesn’t work.”

Though it only makes sense that con­ver­sa­tions about race dom­i­nate the press run for Green Book Ali says it’s a nag­ging point of dis­cus­sion no mat­ter what project he’s pro­mot­ing. He takes is­sue with the ten­dency for black art to be­come tan­gled up in clunky con­ver­sa­tions about race and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, rather than be­ing lauded for its mer­its the way white art is.

“Peo­ple re­ally lean to­wards talk­ing about the cul­tural rel­e­vance,” he said.

“So much time is spend on clap­ping and cel­e­brat­ing the feat or the achieve­ment of a black project do­ing well and black peo­ple be­ing mul­ti­di­men­sional. So much time is spent on ‘Wow! A mul­ti­di­men­sional thug in Moon­light!’ I ap­pre­ci­ate it, but what about the work is trans­for­ma­tional?”

De­spite this, he al­lows that Hol­ly­wood is much more open to di­verse sto­ries and sto­ry­tellers now than in the re­cent past.

“I think Hol­ly­wood is al­ways ready to em­brace a new vein, a new any­thing that’s go­ing to help ex­pand sto­ry­telling that is also eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial,” he said. “If Hol­ly­wood is mak­ing money off of some­thing, then they want to fig­ure out ways to tap into that. And for us, the pos­i­tive thing is that we get to tell our sto­ries how we want to tell them.”

The painstak­ing per­for­mances of the two leads (Ali and Mortensen) el­e­vate the film’s fairly sim­ple premise.

 ?? Rex Fea­tures ??
Rex Fea­tures
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 ??  ?? re­leases in the UAE to­day. Mortensen and Ali’s char­ac­ters form an ulikely friend­ship in the film.
re­leases in the UAE to­day. Mortensen and Ali’s char­ac­ters form an ulikely friend­ship in the film.
 ??  ?? Ali in ‘Moon­light’ (2016). Ali in ‘Luke Cage’ sea­son one (2016).
Ali in ‘Moon­light’ (2016). Ali in ‘Luke Cage’ sea­son one (2016).
 ?? Pho­tos by AP and cour­tesy of Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures ??
Pho­tos by AP and cour­tesy of Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures
 ??  ?? Ma­her­shala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in ‘Green Book’.
Ma­her­shala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in ‘Green Book’.

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