Civil Rights: The story be­hind Green Book

• Re­vis­it­ing sun­down towns

Smithsonian Magazine - - Features - By Anna Di­a­mond

IT WAS WELL AF TER DARK on a Sat­ur­day night in Jan­uary 1963 when the Don Shirley Trio took the stage in Man­i­towoc, Wis­con­sin. The pro­gram of show tunes, jazz and clas­si­cal mu­sic, the lo­cal pa­per re­ported, was “bril­liant and ex­cit­ing and warmly re­ceived by the large crowd.” But its famed leader and pi­anist, Don Shirley, who was black, knew his wel­come was con­di­tional. A hate­ful sign stood at Man­i­towoc’s city lim­its: “N-----, don’t let the sun go down on you in our town.”

When the trio set out on an­other tour later that year, Shirley hired a white driver, a gre­gar­i­ous Ital­ian-Amer­i­can bouncer known as Tony Lip, to han­dle prob­lems that might arise in the “sun­down towns” of the North and the Jim Crow-era South. “My fa­ther said it was al­most on a daily ba­sis they would get stopped, be­cause a white man was driv­ing a black man,” re­calls Lip’s son Nick Val­le­longa, who has turned their jour­ney into Green Book, a new film gar­ner­ing Os­car buzz.

Val­le­longa was 5 years old when his fa­ther headed out on the road with the pi­anist. Af­ter they re­turned more than a year later, the men lived their sep­a­rate lives—Shirley played to ac­claim in Europe and Lip be­came an ac­tor—but they re­mained friends. As a child Val­le­longa vis­ited Shirley in his stu­dio in Man­hat­tan and heard sto­ries about their trip. “That’s an un­be­liev­able movie,” he re­mem­bers think­ing. “I’m gonna make it one day.” In his 20s, Val­le­longa, an ac­tor and oc­ca­sional screen­writer, in­ter­viewed his fa­ther and Shirley about how th­ese two men from starkly dif­fer­ent back­grounds nav­i­gated the racism they en­coun­tered. But Shirley stip­u­lated that he didn’t want the story told un­til af­ter his death.

Both men passed away in 2013, and those con­ver­sa­tions, along with let­ters Lip wrote his wife, form the ba­sis of Green Book, which stars Ma­her­shala Ali as Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Lip. The ti­tle is a ref­er­ence to The Ne­gro Mo­torist Green Book, a travel guide for African-Amer­i­cans pub­lished from 1936 to 1967 that promised “va­ca­tion without ag­gra­va­tion.”

Mak­ing the film more than half a cen­tury af­ter the events it de­picts hasn’t muted its pow­er­ful mes­sage about over­com­ing prej­u­dice. Lip “was a prod­uct of his times. Ital­ians lived with Ital­ians. The Ir­ish lived with the Ir­ish. African-Amer­i­cans lived with African-Amer­i­cans,” Val­le­longa says. The trip “opened my fa­ther’s eyes . . . and then changed how he treated peo­ple.”

Viggo Mortensen (left) and Ma­her­shala Ali star inGreen Book.

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