Green Book

Serious thoughts after the laughter dies down

Green Book is named for the guide book that told black travelers where they would travel safely as a person of color. When traveling, you could find places where you would be welcome to check into a hotel or eat at a restaurant. The story, borrowed from a real story, however is more a glimpse into the forming of an unusual friendship, than it is a critique of this type of travel.

Take a highly cultured black man, trained as a classical pianist, who departs on a concert tour into the deep south. Put a working-class night club bouncer, modestly prejudiced Italian man, quick with his fist and his mouth, in the front seat driving the car and you have an odd couple bound to induce the laughs. It works. I laughed, pretty loudly in the packed theater, so much so that my former pastor recognized that I was there.

Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is welcomed into the high society of wealthy homes and clubs, but usually discovers that he must go elsewhere if he wants to eat or needs to use the restroom. These southern gentlemen never seem to get the irony of hiring a famous performer but denying them the right to the facilities. As a white viewer, the director hopes I don’t notice the irony of telling the story of an amazing black performer from the point of view of the white driver. I did, but it was only after the laughing stopped.

The director hopes I don’t notice the irony of telling the story of an amazing black performer from the point of view of the white driver. I did, but it was only after the laughing stopped.

As the miles added up, Don helped Tony write beautiful love letters home to his wife while Tony introduced Don to fried chicken and popular black musicians. Both of these seemed like a stretch to me, but I let it slide. If we can go below the surface of the humor, we might notice the ease with which we enjoy the music and the food of another culture without really understanding anything about what it means to live in their world. Some reviewers have suggested this is another “white savior” film, and the scenes where Tony uses his fist or his ability to bullshit his way out of a situation might support that theory. Wait a minute, did you just throw a cup out the window? Well, yes. Go back and pick it up. (If you don’t want to view the movie, watch the trailer for that scene.) An alternate view is to recognize that in this film, it is Don who is the employer, who chooses to tour in the south. Don is the person with financial resources, he ultimately gets to decide when the charade has gone on too long. It is Don’s hands and skills that are protected, while Tony is just an employee. Tony may in fact be more transformed by the relationship, than is Don.

Would I like to see a film that revealed more of what Don was thinking? Yes. There were only a few moments when we seemed to feel his angst. He stayed too dignified and chose to hide his anger. He always seems to be trying to remain dignified. Only on occasion did we see his loneliness or his frustration with the racism he faced every day. Tony’s real-life son helped with the script writing which explains why it seems more focused on him. That explains it, but doesn’t justify it. I try to always consider whose story isn’t told, and who gets to tell the story. Don reinforces once again the desire of almost everyone to be respected, to be welcomed, to be loved and to get to follow their passion. The line from Don that sticks in my mind is, “I don’t want to sleep anywhere that they don’t want me.” This should happen everywhere, not just where the green book points.

The quality acting warrants the positive press Green Book is getting, but if you go to view the film, remember to engage in serious reflection after the laughter dies down. If it is a road movie about two men who are radically different becoming friends, it is great. If the film is about the loneliness of being separated from your family and having few friends because your class doesn’t match societal expectations of your race, it is a start. If you want it to critique systemic racism, the film fails. Instead we see a culture holding fast to the power of the way things are. We watch as music or food might be enjoyed while the basic humanity of the other is denied. Green Book, functions under the hood as a safe place for white movie fans to laugh and cheer for the white man who made a black friend. If you are looking to be challenged more, consider viewing other films I recently reviewed.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material

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