Dr. John S. Tamerin Film suggests solution to bigotry
“Green Book” is an extraordinary movie which has just opened and must be seen.
It is a film based on the true story of a brilliant, prominent black pianist (Dr. Don Shirley) who hires a tough Italian bouncer from the Bronx, Tony Vallelonga, to drive him on a tour of the South in 1962.
The film had particular resonance for me because having lived in New York and gone to college and medical school in Boston and in New York I had my first taste of the South at the same time the events in this film were taking place as I had gone to the University of Virginia to start my medical internship.
Once I arrived there, I was taken aback when I discovered patients at the distinguished University of Virginia Hospital were segregated. As a result, we were assigned to “White Medicine” or “Black Medicine,” “White Surgery” or “Black Surgery,” etc.
I was so preoccupied with the stress of shifting from the more passive role of a medical student to the far more active and responsible role as an intern that I was not sufficiently focused on the appalling reality which is the essence of the film “Green Book” — the shocking “apartheid” that existed in the South at that time. I was also so charmed by the beauty of Thomas Jefferson’s university and the Virginia countryside that I did not wake up to the reality that existed around me until one night a black man appeared at the hospital requesting to donate blood and was told “We don’t need black blood, we want white blood.” My comment was “I thought blood was red!” Perhaps, if I had more cultural sensitivity and courage at that time, I would have been more proactive in my outrage.
As a Jew, perhaps I should have had a greater sensitivity and awareness of prejudice and its history in America where many signs had once been posted at hotels boldly stating “Christians Only — Jews Not Allowed” or “No Jews or dogs admitted” or the history of published want ads in newspapers and magazines announcing “Hebrews need not apply” or even an old article in the Yale News titled “Old Clothes Men” which had described Jews as “human vermin,” “vultures” and “scourges.” Instead, I was rather blindly focused on my personal experience which was enveloped by Southern charm.
Prejudice is the theme of “Green Book,” whose title is based on a book that listed where black men and women could stay overnight in the South and recognized a black man could risk his life making a Southern tour. As the movie points out, prior to Don Shirley’s visit, Nat King Cole had been brutally beaten while performing on a stage in his native city of Montgomery, Alabama.
Had this film been released during President Barack Obama’s term I might have been less shocked since so much had been accomplished by the civil rights movement that a black man then resided as our president in the White House — an unimaginable event in 1962.
However, the film is now being released in the middle of Donald Trump’s presidency where Trump stated regarding the Charlottesville riots — the city where I served my internship — “there are good people on both sides” after one woman was killed and 19 injured in an orchestrated white supremacist rally.
On his tour of the South, Dr. Shirley (both a world-famous pianist and a PhD) encounters a number of superficially charming “good people.” However, their acceptance of him stops at the color of his skin. They are flattered to have a musical genius perform for them in the South but he was neither permitted to eat in their dining rooms nor use their restrooms.
This all sounds dismal. Instead, the film is profoundly uplifting, hopeful and often comedic as we watch the transformation of Tony, the bigoted Italian-American driver and bouncer from the Bronx, come to respect and love Don Shirley as a result of their intimate contact. Indeed, the incredibly sensitive screenplay was written, not by a black author, but by Tony Vallelonga’s son, Nick Vallelonga.
The implicit message of the film is that the answer and perhaps the solution to bigotry is intimate familiarity with “the other” which holds the possibility of evolving into respect and perhaps even into love which is what actually occurred as a lifelong, friendship developed between Shirley and Vallelonga.
Now for my fantasy — not that it would ever happen. Wouldn’t it be great if Donald Trump took the time to read Barack Obama’s autobiography and spent time getting to know him personally?
Finally, one cannot miss the irony implicit in “Green Book” that the Bronx bouncer and bigot, Tony, has a lot more in common with our current president who grew up in as a bully in Queens, whereas Don Shirley the black musical genius bears an uncanny resemblance in intellect and elegance to former president Barack Obama.
Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Cornell/Weill School of Medicine.