Green Book Has Great Acting, Unsuitable Title and Racism for White People

When I sat down to watch the movie Green Book, I was expecting to get a visual education on the historical use of The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green. Green published the guidebook from 1936 to 1966 for black travelers in the Jim Crow era whose trips took them through areas that were openly racist and discriminatory toward black people.

This film was not about the actual Green Book. In fact, the actual Green Book is more of a day player or under-fiver in this film.

The film Green Book is a dramatization of the real-life friendship formed between Dr. Don Shirley—a Jamaican-American world-class pianist—and Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American nightclub bouncer from New York City who Shirley hires to be his personal driver and bodyguard during a concert tour that takes him through the Jim Crow South.

In her review for Shadow and Act, writer Brooke Obie calls the film a “poorly titled white savior film” that centers white people in a black story. She pans the film as a “reverse-Driving Miss Daisy” and criticizes the fact that it leaves out a lot of Shirley’s story in favor of propping Vallelonga up as some sort of hero.

I do not disagree with Obie’s critique. It is definitely problematic in that it seems to gloss over the true horrors of the Jim Crow South and just how bad it was for blacks who traveled through and lived there. We never get to see Mahershala Ali, who does a splendid and regal turn as Dr. Shirley, display that gripping fear that black people feel even today whenever they drive down those dark country roads at night—let alone in 1962 when the film is set.

The potential dangers they face are never addressed in the film. Instead, Ali’s Shirley sits comfortably in the backseat, taking in the countryside and even sleeping innocently and comfortably as his white bodyguard—played by the immensely talented Viggo Mortensen—drives him through towns where black bodies likely swung from trees and where at times the only light probably came from burning crosses and white hoods.

We don’t experience any of that, and the significance and importance of the actual Green Book is lost as a result.

This film spoon-feeds racism to white people, and that was never more evident than in the screening I attended in Los Angeles during the press junket.

There is a scene in the film in which Tony and Dr. Shirley enter a tailor’s shop in Georgia. Tony spots a suit that he thinks would look good on Don, and he points it out to him. He then asks the tailor to pull out the suit in Don’s size. The tailor thinks the suit is for Tony and happily hands it to him, directing him to a dressing room in the back to try it on. Tony, in turn, hands the suit to Dr. Shirley and tells him to try it on.

The tailor’s attitude immediately changes. With a look of fear and embarrassment on his face (because there’s no way this scene could have been portrayed without having the tailored look at least a little bit embarrassed by his own complicity in perpetuating racism and discrimination), he tells Dr. Shirley that he is not allowed to try the suit on. Instead, he advises him that he can buy the suit and then have it altered.

The mostly white audience watching the film with me collectively gasped as if this were the first time in their lives they had seen a depiction of racism.

The instances of racism in this film were mild compared to the actual racial terrorism black people experienced then and continue to experience. We have a sitting president who declared to the world he is a [white] nationalist and who enacts policies that are harmful to blacks and people of color in general—but somehow white people were surprised to see a scene in which a white man who hired Don Shirley to entertain his party guests insists that his black entertainment go outside to use an outhouse rather than the restroom inside his home.

I’m not here to make excuses for this movie. I actually enjoyed it, despite all of its flaws. It was funny in the right places, touching in the right places, and even as it erases the true ugliness of racism in its depiction, it provides something of a starting point for white people to wake up.

It is another in a long line of white savior movies such as The Green MileThe Blind SideFreedom WritersAmistadA Time to KillBlood Diamond, and Lincoln. As Obie says, it humanizes a racist and puts him in charge of telling a black man’s story.

Is that what white people need to understand that racism, white supremacy, and white privilege are still part of our everyday reality and something that black people continue to suffer under?

Do they have to see a white racist change his mind, become a lifelong friend to a black man (Shirley and Vallelonga remained good friends until they died just months apart in 2013), and invite said black man into his home to enjoy a holiday dinner with his astonished and apparently equally racist family in order for them to believe that this is how people were and still are?

The screenplay for the film was written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, who grew up hearing stories about the infamous road trip his father took with Shirley. He and director Peter Farrelly made the conscious decision to tell the story from a white perspective, and that is understandable since that is all they know. That doesn’t excuse the whitewashing that racism gets in this film, but it helps us to understand it a little bit better.

I would still contend that the film is worth seeing for everyone. It is clueless and offensive at points—like when Vallelonga contends that he is somehow blacker and understands blackness better than the man he is protecting from white hillbilly racists in the Deep South—but it is fun as a buddy pic if you are looking for a feel-good time for the holidays.

And, as I said earlier if this spoon-fed racism helps white people wake up from their Sleeping Beauty-esque stupor and recognize the work that needs to be done to actually make this country great again, then so be it.

I received an email from Harry Belafonte this morning. He had reached out to the studio and asked them who he could talk to in order to encourage people to give this film a chance. The studio pointed him in my direction, and this is what he sent me:

My wife Pamela and I just finished watching Green Book and although I don’t usually do this, I am compelled to drop this note to thank the filmmakers for having made this film for us all to see. I knew Don Shirley, and, in fact, had an office across the street from his at Carnegie Hall, and I experienced much of what he did at the same time. This movie is accurate, it is true, and it’s a wonderful movie that everyone should see.

The few people who appear to be objecting to the film’s depiction of the time and the man are dead wrong, and, if the basis of their resentment stems from it having been written and/or directed by someone who isn’t African American, I disagree with them even more. There are many perspectives from which to tell the same story and all can be true.

I personally thank the filmmakers for having told this important story from a very different lens, one no less compelling than any other.

So again, I say to the filmmakers, thank you, and congratulations.

Harry Belafonte

Yes, the story is told from a different lens, but I would not go so far as to say that the people objecting to that lens are “dead wrong.” I get what Belafonte is trying to say here. He was an artist and performer during those times and he had some of the same experiences Dr. Shirley did.

I would think that would make Mr. Belafonte more understanding about why some would take issue with the way the story was told. The movie is accurate in that it shows racism existed, but it is disingenuous to posit that those who think the story should have been told from a black perspective have somehow missed the point. Much like the choice to tell the story in the first place, the lens and what it does not show are conscious choices with real implications, artistic and otherwise.

The movie has a misleading title. It delivers racism in a way that makes it easy for white people to be comfortable as they watch it. It has great acting from both Ali and Mortensen.

But it is in fact yet another white savior movie in which the white person doesn’t really save the black person from anything. When that holiday dinner at the end of the movie is over, Shirley still steps back out into a world that considers him less than.

Shirley died in a world that still considered him less than.

We continue to live in a world that views black people as less than.

Green Book is not here to teach any lessons. It’s not here to end racism. It’s not here to increase white guilt. It is worth seeing for those (white people) who may need a primer on racism. It is worth seeing just for Mahershala Ali. It is worth seeing for Viggo Mortensen’s amazing tough-guy act.

It is worth seeing because nothing has changed.

As Mahershala Ali told me when I interviewed him about the film, “Discrimination is much more intelligent now.”

Keep that perspective in mind as you watch it.

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