As a rule, I’m not a fan of criticizing a movie or television show I haven’t seen, which of course means I’m going to make an exception, albeit from a different angle. I’m not going to critique the quality of Green Book. I like Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. I’m sure the acting is great. The costumes look nice. I’m sure the director did a fine job putting it all together.
But I do feel the film worthy of criticism as an entity. Not unlike our nation’s many statues commemorating generals of the Confederate Army, the craftsmanship is not what I question, but the existence of the film as a whole, in this place, at this time.
Viewed as a cultural nugget, divorced from its individual parts, Green Book is that film that comes along every award season, pregnant with meaning and self-satisfaction, yet so tepid at its core that the thought process behind its creation should be questioned.
First, aren’t we sick of making and seeing this same movie over and over? The biography of Don Shirley is new, of course, but we’ve seen this tale before. Did the world really need another film about one black person and one white person setting aside their prejudices and distrust to shake hands over the color line? This trope has been tired for a long time. Certainly it’s worn out by now.
Can’t we expect more from art than blunt force character evolution, especially on the subject of race? Given the atmosphere in America right now, we need more from our artists. The people for whom the movie’s message was intended will never see it, and the audience it reached should have been tasked with weightier questions.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Green Book has been holding its own throughout the Hollywood award season. When I first heard of the movie, it sounded corny. The story of a white man chauffeuring a renowned black jazz artist around the deep south during the 1960s seemed like such an obvious awards grab that I didn’t think anyone could take it seriously. Lately, the industry has been honoring interesting, if not particularly challenging, films, and I hoped that trend would continue. Certainly they’d learned their lesson from The Help.
And yet here we are. Thirty years after Driving Miss Daisy, Hollywood’s treatment of race hasn’t progressed too far beyond remaking the same basic pitch, only with the roles of chauffeur and passenger reversed, and the white character still in the driver’s seat.
Which brings me to my second issue. In Green Book, we have yet another film about a vibrant black character in which a white person is front and center, for no reason other than his whiteness. Had the real-life Tony been black, while holding the exact same job and performing the exact same function, his role in the movie would have been negligible because it would not have been noteworthy for an African-American celebrity to have an African-American driver. It would not be considered exceptional for a black bodyguard to intervene to protect his black boss.
Tony is a hero only because he’s white. Haven’t we progressed to the point where a movie about a noted black person in America can be told without viewing that life through a white person’s gaze? The screenplay was co-written by the son of Shirley’s bodyguard, so this specific story would not exist but for Tony, but clearly Don Shirley is the notable figure. No one would make a film about Tony the chauffeur absent his connection to a famous party, yet here Tony is considered the lead.
(There is also some controversy about the nature of the friendship. According to the Shirley family, Tony was more an employee than friend. See “Family of Black Man, Don Shirley, Portrayed in “The Green Book” Blasts Movie and Its “Lies”, Black Enterprise)..
Third, I hate that they called the movie Green Book. The book of the title is the Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual travel guide that helped black Americans find restaurants, hotels, and gas stations where their business would be welcome and to avoid “sundown towns” where they risked arrest or violence if they were seen after dark.
There must be a thousand fascinating, maybe even heroic stories to be told via the Green Book, many of them tainted by America’s tragic history of racial violence, without which such a book would not have been necessary. The actual book was an iconic African-American cultural artifact yet the movie places it in the hands of a white man and gives him the job of keeping Don Shirley safe, transforming Tony, in effect, into the Green Book. It’s a stunning act of literary theft.
So that’s why I hope Green Book gets shut out tonight. The film turns Don Shirley into a passenger in his own life, fabricates a relationship with a centered white person to make a facile statement of interracial friendship, and reimagines the Green Book as a tool that a white person used to keep a black man safe.
We can do better.
I’m not mad that the filmmakers made the film they wanted to make. This isn’t Twitter, so I’m not going to call for everyone involved to be driven from Hollywood, never to work again. They made what they made, and I’m free to see it or not.
I would never say Green Book shouldn’t exist, even if maybe I wish it didn’t or existed in a better form. I will never say that white artists should not make movies about black people, because on principle, artists should be free to create whatever comes to their mind to create. But, artists also should be held to a high standard and when times require better, we must ask them too, to be better.
I’m sad that we are now less likely to see a version of Don Shirley’s life focused on his struggles and achievements, rather than his maybe-fictional friendship with his driver. I’m bored to tears by the very idea of another ham-fisted film about race (oh, look, it’s The Upside…) I’m embarrassed that a group of white filmmakers had in their hands the fullness of Don Shirley’s life and chose to make a film in which he shares half with a white person.
So I ask – did we need this movie in this form? Did it add to our cultural conversation or merely distill an exceptional black man’s life down to the months he spent traveling with a white man? Would we not have been better served by a fuller presentation of Don Shirley’s life or the story of the Green Book itself? I’d say the filmmakers missed an opportunity to tell a bigger story and traded it for corny Oscar bait.