At last year’s 91st Academy Awards, Green Book took home some serious prizes, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and to much controversy, Best Picture, beating out Black Panther, BlacKkkblansman, Roma, and many other critically acclaimed films from 2019. Green Book does a handful of things very well, much thanks to the excellent acting by stars Mahershala Ali, who plays genius black pianist Don Shirley, or Doc, as he’s called by his co-star Viggo Mortensen who plays Shirley’s driver Tony “Lip” as he’s known to his Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn.
On the surface, Green Book is visually well done, with color, weather, and naturistic scenery paralleling the movie’s themes of restraint versus indulgence, violence versus dignity, appearance versus reality, and other themes that glisten on the surface. However, Green Book gets ricketty when it runs into terrain that it doesn’t have the appliance to handle. Although Green Book attempts to picture parts of the Black experience, what the audience gets are mere fragments, beginnings of Black stories. With a team of all white writers and a white director, can the Black experience’s complexity and nuance be told without Black people playing major roles in the process?
The Green Book Debate
The debate of whether or not white creators should be involved with Black stories is a complicated subject. Still, it generally boils down to two possible answers: either yes, white creators can make art that doesn’t necessarily represent them, or no, white creators will never be able to make art outside of their experience. It comes down to whether you believe art supersedes societal circumstances or operates beneath them. By looking at both answers to the question, we can be more conscious of the art we’re consuming, and thus the art America is creating.
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Green Book is Just a Movie
Green Book is an excellent movie if you view it as just that, a movie. It’s a heartfelt story, warm in its closeness to characters, that at its core is a movie about friendship. It’s impossible to watch Green Book and not be reminded of your relationships. There’s a certain enthralling, often delightfully eccentric intimacy that the camera breathes into each scene between Ali and Mortensen. Every scene between them is a delight for anyone with a beating heart. Their polar opposite nature gives way for superb comedic moments that sprinkle in between the bleakness tailing the team as Don Shirley’s concert tour takes them deep down South.
I’m sure to someone unaware of America’s racist history, the South’s hypocritical racism stings like staring at the sun for the first time. Every problem Don Shirley runs into being a Black man trying to navigate the South would make anyone with a narrow perception of America’s history’s blood boil. They’d grow hotter with each occurrence as the blinding sun of racism intensifies the deeper we go. And for plenty of viewers, American or otherwise, this was the case; Green Book succeeded in illuminating one of America’s many dirty little secrets. For many audience members, Green Book hit all the marks.
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At its core, Green Book is a feel-good movie that does its job by the end. For many, it proves that white people can tell a story which includes elements of the Black experience in a manner acceptable, so much so in fact that it earns Oscars, and everybody makes it home in time for dinner. Because by this logic, art can be enjoyed and rewarded without being contextualized by societal circumstances, current events, or historical truths. But what happens to Green Book when we include these other factors? Does the Best Picture winner still hold up?
Although Green Book often suggests it, racism has never been a new concept to America– it’s always been here. For Black Americans, Green Book was a movie we’ve already seen before in the stories from our grandparents and great grandparents, uttered in recollections at cookouts and family reunions. The story of Green Book is framed on the walls of our grandma’s house, in our aunt’s photo albums, in the memories of our elders that were there in the heat of America’s rising sun of racism and violence.
Every racist occurrence in Green Book is met with sincere surprise as if every stop erases the characters’ memory of where they are. This is one of the many ways Green Book could have benefitted from having a Black writer permanently in the room. A Black person doesn’t merely forget they are down south. It could happen anywhere, the wrong look to the wrong man, the wrong shoes, the suspicious skin color that convicts us to life in a hashtag. If you look at art and film as a reflection of our ever-changing, yet thematically universal humanity, then Green Book misses the mark in a lot of ways.
Actually, No Green Book is Not Just a Movie
Green Book tries to tell it’s audience that it’s essential not to look away from the Black experience, but the script is so enthralled with the life of Tony that it plays conversely to its own rhetoric. It highlights the disparities between the white working class and the Black working class, and yet, Green Book as an entity does nothing to support the equity of Black people; Mahershala Ali is the only Black character with a major speaking role in this movie. That, combined with the fact that no Black writer or director was hired for this movie, is hypocritical to what Green Book is trying to say.
And that’s unfortunately what happens when you contextualize films about Black people, told by white people, with societal circumstances; you end up with a giant hypocrisy. Because a white writer can highlight the Black experience all they want, with its thrilling liberties, and crushing realities of oppressive intricacies. But as long as Black people are not getting paid, it doesn’t matter what the movie preaches. The gap will continue to widen.
The Help, The Color Purple, Waves, Get on Up, 42, and so so SO many more movies all have one thing in common; they’re critically acclaimed films about Black people written and or directed by white people. These directors’ resumes are growing. They’re becoming household names off of their depictions of Black people, while Black directors like Spike Lee, have to beg studios for more money and hustle for robust resumes, Oscar or no Oscar. And films like his BlacKkklansman, or Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, or even Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, will continue to be snubbed, props to uphold films more digestible for Americans. Art is a tool of capitalism. As long as this stays true, it will always be a perpetrator of classism, and inevitably racism. When we contextualize art with societal circumstances, it is hard to say that white directors and writers should get paid for telling Black stories, when Black people hardly get hired, recognized, or awarded to tell their own.
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Green Book is not by any means a bad movie. As mentioned before, it is generally well done. However, it can not be the end of our work as enjoyers of film. As audience members, Green Book must be a stepping stone to our journey of enjoying more complex and diverse depictions of marginalized stories. Our consumption is money, and money will always flow towards racism unless we as consumers are conscious.
If one spends twenty dollars on a Green Book ticket, after watching, it’s essential to think about where else we can spend our money to make actual impacts on marginalized communities. Seek out the real people behind the silver screen depictions, and forage for complete truths, not just the ones Hollywood likes to spoon-feed us. Buy from local Black artists, support Black businesses, support Black films made by Black people of all shapes and sizes, and embrace a new depth of your artistic consumption. American audiences have to be ready to go far deeper if we want to continue to uproot our racist history. The solution happens with a collective decision to be better, do more, and push for higher standards in the work we want to see in the future.
By Tyler Bey
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