Green Book

By Di Golding

Mailed on November 28, 2018

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Dear Victor Hugo Green

Dear Victor,

You authored the original Green Book, or, as it was first known in 1936, The Negro Motorist Green Book. This annually updated tour guide was a tool for African-American travelers to find lodging, restaurants, and services willing to accommodate them in Jim Crow-era United States. In the introduction to the guide you wrote:

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”](

Well I’ve got some good news, and some bad news…

Despite the monumental changes in race relations in the United States since 1936, there is still much work to be done. Part of this work is facilitated through storytelling – sharing experiences with the current generation to illuminate just how difficult life was for the average African-American in the not so distant past – in hopes that we can understand the immeasurable hardships endured by so many, and to move towards reconciliation, and a future where we do not repeat the sins of the past.

Some of these stories, like the services you provided in your guides, seem constructed to appeal to specific audiences. Those who prefer to measure historical distance in terms of how far we’ve come, rather than concentrate on how much farther we need to go. Those who want their stories of oppression served with a heaping spoonful of sugar to cut the bitter aftertaste. This new Green Book is for them.

This Green Book was written by three white men, helmed by one of them, and has a white character in the lead and literal driver’s seat. This film is inspired by the true story of an unlikely friendship between two men who couldn’t have had less in common – Tony Lip, the Italian-American thug with a heart of gold, and Dr. Don Shirley, an accomplished and erudite African-American concert pianist. Your book is a jumping off point for this story to unfold. In 1962, Dr. Shirley undertook a concert tour of the Southern states, requiring a driver/bodyguard to ensure his safety. Enter Tony Lip, a buffoonish nightclub bouncer with prejudices of his own. Your book is more of a prop than a guide here, an artifact Tony flips through periodically while trying to wrap his head around why Dr. Shirley isn’t like the other black people he’s seen back in the Bronx.

You see, Dr. Shirley doesn’t adhere to the stereotypes Tony believes about black people; he doesn’t eat fried chicken, he doesn’t listen to Little Richard, and he lives in a palatial apartment above Carnegie Hall. Tony, on the other hand, is a caricature of an Italian-American New Yawker; he’s cozy with mobsters, don’t speak so good, eats like a horse, and throws away drinking glasses used by the black handymen who have come to do repairs in his apartment. These broadly drawn characters are straight out of the odd-couple map typically seen in road-trip comedies. But Green Book, despite it’s simple laughs (derived mainly from Tony’s oafish and backwards behavior), seems less interested in being regarded as a comedy, and more driven to remind us at every turn that it is a capital "I" Important Film.

It is a film as manufactured as your guides. The laughs, the drama, and the entire plot are telegraphed with little nuance and filmed without originality. Green Book shows us mere glimpses of Dr. Shirley’s piano performances but saddles us with one of the most egregiously manipulative scores I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing. For example, one scene finds Lip pulling over beside a field of black sharecroppers to tend to an overheated radiator. When he opens the back door for the impeccably dressed Dr. Shirley, the sharecroppers stop what they’re doing to stare at him. This is a scene meant to reveal one of Dr. Shirley’s core internal conflicts – a black man who finds himself unable to feel comfortable in either black or white society. It could have been a thoughtful, tastefully illustrated glimpse of a character who unfortunately throughout much of the film takes a figurative and literal back seat to the evolution of Tony’s narrative journey. Instead, the orchestral flourishes and swells are as subtle as flashing railroad crossing lights, practically waving signs that say, "YOU SHOULD FEEL SOMETHING RIGHT NOW!"

Your guide was designed to serve the people in the car, and the people in this car – Mahershala Ali, and Viggo Moretensen, are Formula One drivers forced to race Big Wheels. Their performances (and a stellar Linda Cardellini as Tony’s loving wife) are the one and only reason I didn’t walk out of this glorified Hallmark movie. They are two of the best actors of their generation working at the top of their game, so their being good in a movie didn’t surprise me. But they transcended the sophomoric script to bring dimension to Tony and Dr. Shirley proving once again that a mediocre film can be jump-started when you put expert mechanics under the hood. Their performances are the stuff Oscar-nom reels are made of.

And this film is the Oscar-baitiest of Oscar-bait films. By that I mean it feels custom built to appeal to Academy voters, who, despite recent efforts to diversify its membership, is still overwhelmingly populated by old, white, men. It is an American feel-good movie for the kind of people who will be satisfied to see Tony’s character become less racist because now he has exactly one black friend. The kind of people who celebrate "white savior" films like 12 Years A Slave and The Help, but largely ignore films like Selma, 13th, and (I hope I’m wrong, but probably not) Black Panther. Films about race with a redemptive arc, rather than films which portray black culture and black issues without a saccharine Hollywood flourish (no,I didn’t forget about Moonlight, a film that proves the exception, not the rule).

Your book, and the real relationship between Tony and Dr. Shirley, no doubt have far more interesting histories than Green Book decided to portray. If this movie inspires people to delve deeper into the subject matter, and its messy, unpolished truth, then this was a road trip worth taking.

Along for the ride,


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