“Green Book” … Life on the Road

This is part of SSUC’s March Spiritual Gathering Series
which seeks wisdom found in 2019 Oscar Nominated Films.

Road trips are dangerous. It’s not just the weather or road conditions. It’s not just language or cultural barriers. It’s not just the risks of getting lost or running up against privilege, prejudice or the dangers of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Road trips should come with a caution label: travel at your own risk … you’ll never be the same again.

That’s what happens in this movie to Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga when they spend 2 months together on a road trip in 1962 mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line. Tony is a street-savvy, 3rd generation Italian American, born and raised in the Bronx. He is portrayed as earthy, quick tempered, profane speaking, a hardworking, family loving guy who bears the bigotry that characterizes his family and friends. Desperate for work when the night club where he is a bouncer is closed for a few months, Tony does, what for him is the unimaginable, and accepts a job to work for a talented, highly educated, sophisticated and cultured African American musical prodigy on a classical tour with his trio.

Across the miles, we witness the transformation that happens for each of them as they are changed by the road and by each other.  Tony’s hard edges soften as his respect for Dr. Don Shirley deepens.  Don lets down his guard as he experiences Tony’s fierce loyalty. Tony learns dignity is a higher road for anger than violence Empathy begins to fill the space that prejudice held in him. After experiencing segregation in the bathrooms he can and can’t use, the stores where he can and can’t shop, the bars where he can and can’t enter, the motels he can and can’t stay … after tolerating bigotry and violence, Don is empowered to walk away from the final concert when he is barred by his color from eating in the very Alabama dining room where his trio is to perform.

Tony and Don learn from each other. They are changed by each other and the experiences they have on the road together. In the end, Tony shuts down the bigoted comments of his family and welcomes Don into his home.  And Dr. Don Shirley steps out of his protective but lonely isolation to cross the threshold of a home in a neighborhood he wouldn’t ever have imagined finding himself.

Green Book is a Damascas road story … not in the blinding light, knocked off your horse kind of way that the 1st century story of Saul/Paul gives us, but in the slow, steady incremental true to life kind of way … in the way we are invariably changed by the road and those with whom we travel.

Maybe that’s why we need to see road trip movies. We forget the wisdom of the poet, Mark Nepo:

To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.
To journey ad be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.

And we forget that although a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, it isn’t always the shortest distance between two people.  It is the long and winding road we share that has the power to shrink the distances between us. It’s the experiences we have together that wear down our privilege, our prejudice, our preconceived ideas, our stereotypes, our defensiveness that narrow the gaps between us.  We don’t have to go very far to take a road trip. We don’t have to travel from New York City to Birmingham or from Jerusalem to Damascus. We don’t have to get in our car, or get on our horse. We just have to travel a thought, an experience, an idea, a belief, a conviction with someone whose experience of the world, whose way of seeing things is different than ours.