The Public’s Reaction to ‘Green Book’

My project shares similar themes with Green Book, such as using narrative to explore the complex issue of race and discrimination and investigating interracial friendship as a means to reduce prejudice. Therefore, I’m interested in learning whatever lessons I can from the controversy which surrounds Green Book. I read several reviews on the movie, which ranged from critical to supportive. Based on these reviews, I highlight the common themes and possible takeaways from the public response to Green Book.

Movie Summary

I recently watched Green Book, a movie about an unlikely, interracial friendship between Dr. Donald Shirley, a queer Black classical musician, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a working-class Italian. The movie is inspired by true events where Vallelonga and Dr. Shirley’s paths crossed when Dr. Shirley needed a chauffeur touring the Deep South in 1962. Even though Vallelonga was openly racist, Dr. Shirley hired him anyways. It would be unlikely that a White man agreeing to work for a Black man at the time would “check all the boxes” (NPR), and Dr. Shirley needed a White driver as a safety measure going from club to club.

Dr. Shirley felt pressed to tour the Deep South in an effort to “penetrate the stereotypes” (NPR). In the movie, Vallelonga struggles to understand why Dr. Shirley would expose himself to such an antagonistic environment; Vallelonga himself is depicted as someone who responds to hostility with violence and anger. In contrast, Dr. Shirley, from Vallelonga’s point of view, is seen as someone who is playing along with the rules of the Deep South. In actuality, Dr. Shirley is exercising nonviolence as a means to overturn stereotypes. Towards the end, his bandmates tell Vallelonga that “it takes courage to change people’s hearts.” I believe this courage is not only about Dr. Shirley’s choice to tour the Deep South, but also his choice to take the route of nonviolence.

Public Response Themes

Green Book scooped up 13 awards on the circuit, including the Oscar Best Picture, the Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), and the Best Original Screenplay. Still, the public’s response outside of the Academy is deeply conflicted. It should be noted that the controversial response to Green Book is not split cleanly along racial lines (as one might assume). Here are some of the themes I gathered:

Whitewashing racism – The general critique is that the racism and danger associated with it is watered down significantly in the movie. Many critics said this was to “spoon-feed” racism and make it more “palatable” to White audiences.

Monique Judge wrote about her experience watching with a predominantly White audience and their reaction to the scene where Dr. Shirley wants to try on a suit, but the shopkeeper says he cannot: “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 title of the movie is based off of the Negro Motorist Green Book which was created by Victor Hugo Green, a New York City mailman, during the Jim Crow era. Green published these guidebooks for African-American roadtrippers. The books enable them to find places while traveling that would not discriminate against them. In the movie, they rarely show the book or discuss the danger of Dr. Shirley traveling in the Jim Crow South. Instead, the movie depicts Dr. Shirley mostly riding comfortably in the back of the car while Vallelonga drives him from place to place.

“Magical Negro” versus the “White Savior” – The movie is told from Vallelonga’s perspective and the choice to tell the story from a White man’s perspective resulted in backlash about centering, again, the White man. However, the choice to tell the story from Vallelonga’s perspective is also understandable since one of the filmmakers is Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. The “Magical Negro” stereotype is usually a supporting character whose function is to help White protagonists overcome some character flaw (in Vallelonga’s case this would be being a racist). They are usually wise, patient, and are ignorant of “any genuine African-American experience” (IndieWire).

On the other side of the coin is the “White Savior” mentality, especially as Vallelonga repeatedly “saves” Dr. Shirley and, at the end of the movie, invites Dr. Shirley to have Christmas dinner with him and his family. I found this especially problematic (and cringe-inducing) when Vallelonga teaches Dr. Shirley to eat fried chicken (something he assumes Dr. Shirley should like because he’s Black). How was Vallelonga’s urgings that Dr. Shirley should eat fried chicken differ from when later on the White household prepares fried chicken as a special meal for Dr. Shirley as the guest of honor?

Depiction of racism as history – Several critics point out that after watching the film, White audiences may be self congratulatory and take away that racism is a thing of history versus a very much present-day problem. While this is definitely a problem, I also wonder how they could have avoided this without picking a different story (one not set in the Jim Crow era).

The creative team is overwhelmingly White – The controversy around if the movie is “Black enough” is deepened when taking a look at the filmmaking team (The Hollywood Reporter). Their choices in telling the story about Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga are seen through the lens of a White man telling a Black man’s story: “Farrelly and his team probably believed that they were depicting an ‘exceptional’ African American in a positive light, but the character is still ultimately secondary and serves as a plot device” (IndieWire). Several accusations go along the line of the directors not bothering to do enough research to provide an authentic representation of Dr. Shirley.

Takeaways

Here is a list of takeaways I’ve gathered (or questions I’ll continue to mull on) based on the public reaction to Green Book:

  • Create with members of the community whose stories you’re trying to share; do the research
  • Use sensitivity readers to help provide accountability for where there are stereotypes/tropes being used
  • When it comes to fiction/narrative, frame the project as such, an interpretation and a singular account; don’t overreach
  • Critically examine who the protagonist is (who is being centered) and why they are the protagonist – How does the choice of protagonist further the message?
  • Do stories about prejudice need to be neatly tied up with a bow on top at the end?
  • What is the balance between confronting full-on the horrors of discrimination versus making it palatable enough to not turn off audiences? Does the latter even matter?

The Reviews

NPR: ‘Green Book’ Is About Race—And Also Friendship, Class and Masculinity by Sydney Harper

NPR: Oscars 2019: Reaction to Best Picture Award for ‘Green Book’ heard on All Things Considered (between Ari Shapiro and film and television critic Rebecca Theodore-Vachon)

TIME: What to Know About the Controversy Surrounding the Movie Green Book by Andrew R. Chow

The Grapevine: ‘Green Book’ Has Great Acting, a Misleading Title and Palatable Racism for White People by Monique Judge

The New York Times: ‘Green Book’ Review: Road Trip Through a Land of Racial Clichés by A.O. Scott

The Hollywood Reporter: Why the ‘Green Book’ Controversies Don’t Matter by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

IndieWire: ‘Green Book’: The Feel-Good Oscar Contender Has a ‘Magical Negro’ Problem—Opinion by Tambay Obenson

Shadow and Act: ‘Green Book’ Is a Poorly Titled White Savior Film by Brooke Obie

Refinery29: The Backlash to Green Book, Explained by Elena Nicolaou

Vox: Green Book builds a feel-good comedy atop an artifact of shameful segregation. by Alissa Wilkinson

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