Green Book tells the real-life story of celebrated genius pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, who embarks on a lengthy show tour through the South in 1962. Shirley, who is African-American, anticipates he will likely run into some racially-motivated trouble at points throughout his journey, and proactively hires Italian-American tough-guy Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortenson, as his personal driver. Although polar opposite personalities in just about every way you can imagine, the two men develop a lasting friendship. And the then-new ‘62 Cadillac is what Shirley’s record company provides as the pair’s chariot.
As with any movie set in a time period when cars were more beautiful than they are today, I entered a screening of Green Book most excited to take in the sea of period-correct metal. And it did not disappoint. Peppered throughout the film are lovely bits of 1950s and ‘60s design. But Green Book’s master stroke is that the hero car, a stunning 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVille painted turquoise, is more than just window dressing to set the scene. The big four-door Caddy is truly a character in the film, as well as a reminder of the life-changing power of the American road trip.
Shirley is a man of culture, class, and dignity, so the turquoise Cadillac four-door sedan is a fitting ride for him on his adventure through the American South. He’s also a proud man who appreciates the finer things, which means he might not have consented to something a little less… ostentatious. The Cadillac draws a lot of attention from onlookers throughout their road trip, and people outright gawk—remember, it’s 1962 in the South—when they see a black man dressed to the nines being chauffeured by a white man.
The car’s pillarless roofline make for some memorable shots of Shirley in the back seat and Vallelonga at the wheel. But it’s the scenes where the blue-collar driver sullies the aqua-colored interior with balled-up garbage and a bucket of fried chicken that speak most to the clashing of economic worlds, and how the magic of a road trip can build friendships and melt down those barriers.
According to Nick Vallelonga, son of the real-life Tony and co-writer of Green Book, the movie is more about telling his father’s story than making some grand statement about America’s history of social injustice or racial discrimination. “It’s about the two guys in the car. It’s really about their relationship, and what they were going through during this horrendous time in our history,” Vallelonga tells Time.
As for the cars used in production, Car and Driver caught up with the movie-car company that supplied Green Book with its gorgeous vehicles. Apparently the production company initially wanted a Coupe DeVille, but the two-door layout would have made camera work challenging. Three DeVilles were used in the film, and given all of the harsh weather involved, the cars required new windshield wiper motors and spares on hand. All vehicles retained their stock 390-cubic-inch (6.4-liter) V-8 engines and single four-barrel carburetors. The hero car, however, had the benefit of a little tinkering, including some new valvetrain and suspension components.
For the cars alone, Green Book is worth the price of admission. But if you’ve had the privilege of taking a long road trip through this beautiful country, forging a new and unlikely friendship along the way, and feeling grateful for all the doors that cars open in our lives, it’s a must-see.