Race-themed buddy movie could put MN-born producer in Oscar contention

Producer Jim Burke
Producer Jim Burke in the MPR News studios in October 2018 while in Minnesota for the Twin Cities Film Festival. His latest film "Green Book" was the opening selection for the 2018 Twin Cities Film Festival, where it also won the Best Feature Award.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

In 1962, the concert pianist Donald Shirley, an African-American, embarked on a concert tour of the deep South. He hired an out-of-work Italian-American bouncer to drive him and provide a little muscle. It turned into a wild ride.

This true story is the basis of "Green Book," a new movie from Twin Cities native Jim Burke, opening locally this weekend.

"Green Book" grew out of a very different kind of movie. In 1996, producer Burke made the infamous bowling movie "Kingpin" with the Farrelly brothers, Bobby and Peter. They're known for such cult lowbrow comedies as "There's Something about Mary" and "Dumb and Dumber."

But "Kingpin" left Burke with a new appreciation for one of the brothers.

"I sort of drifted towards making movies that had sort of deeper meaning and I knew that Pete was that person in real life," he said. So Burke pledged to find a more substantial collaboration to do with Peter Farrelly.

"I was completely unsuccessful, but then he found this idea and came to me and we were off to the races," said Burke.

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"Green Book" is an odd-couple road-trip buddy movie about the pianist and the bouncer, called Tony Lip. Even as they eat a meal for the first time it's clear they have little in common.

"How is that?" Shirley asks Tony Lip as he wolfs down his meal.

"Salty," Lip replies.

"Have you ever considered becoming a food critic?" Shirley says.

"No," says Lip. "Not really. Why? Is there any money in that?"

As they travel, Burke said, they learn about the realities of each other's worlds.

"Tony Lip has never been out of the five boroughs," Burke said. "So he's experiencing so many new things in life, seeing America for the first time. Being with someone who is in a different race, way higher socio-economic category," Burke said. "And the kind of reverse is true for Don Shirley. I think he has spent a lot more time with white people, but they were always rich white people, and people that had a certain sense of polish, and Tony didn't have that."

And they are having these experiences during a tour of segregated Southern towns in the 1960s. Shirley, who lived in an apartment at Carnegie Hall, must stay in blacks-only hotels. He can headline concerts, but not eat, or go to the bathroom, in the venues he plays.

Tony is portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, who gained 50 pounds for the role. Initially, Burke said, the race-based rules make sense to the bouncer.

"We don't hit it over the head with a hammer," said Burke. "You can tell that Tony is a racist himself. Not just by what he does, but what he allows other people to say."

But things change as he gets to know Don Shirley, played with prickly grace by Mahershala Ali, a performance Jim Burke lauds.

"He plays a quite complicated character, and in his quiet way he just brings the thunder," said Burke. "He's great."

While the story is set in the early 1960s, the racial tensions it explores still remain in 21st century America. Burke said he hopes "Green Book" gets people thinking about what happened where they live. He grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, and was shocked to learn about his hometown.

"It prohibited black people from buying property there," he said. "I didn't know that till I was an adult."

Despite the tension in the film, it's very funny. Burke said the country needs movies like this nowadays — ones that deal with tough issues but leave audiences feeling good. The film won the Best Feature award at the recent Twin Cities Film Festival, and as Oscar season begins, it's a big contender. Burke has been getting praise from high places.

"We screened the movie for Steven Spielberg this summer, and he watched it three times in a week," Burke said. "And he goes, 'You know what? This is the best buddy movie I've watched since "Butch and Sundance".'"

And after such an accolade, do you really need an Oscar?