Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Doesn’t Think The ‘Green Book’ Controversies Matter, But I Very Much Think They Do
"We have facts so that truths can be corrected, so that truths can be debated."
January 15, 2019 at 4:41 am
On January 14, The Hollywood Reporter published an op-ed by the basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar titled “Why the ‘Green Book’ Controversies Don’t Matter.” The premise of the piece is that, and this is a direct quote, “Historical movies are never about history. Nor are they meant to be.” This claim, and many of the assertions that follow are utterly outrageous, and here I try to explain why.
If Mr. Jabbar wanted to discuss why the 2015 tweet to your president from Green Book writer Nick Vallelonga, claiming to have seen Muslims (of which Mr. Jabbar is) cheering after 9/11 doest matter, sure. Or if he wanted to dismiss the fact that Peter Farrelly used to expose his genitals on his sets, I’m OK with that too. Who cares. Apparently, and according to Mr. Jabbar, even in the age of #MeToo, boys will be boys and racists who spent the latter part of their lives trying to make a film about how their father’s transformation changed them too, still need actual time to change. OK, I’ll take that. But instead, Mr. Jabbar chooses to focus on the most important aspect of this controversy, and purports that actually relying on history and historical accounts to tell what has been promoted as a historical film is irrelevant and moot. How absurd.
First, Mr. Jabbar says that Green Book and many of the historical films he referenced in this piece are not actually about facts, but are instead about something much more important than facts — they are about truth. The logic in this is quite confusing, because truth is always subjective, facts are not. In the age of your president making up his own facts on a daily basis, telling his truths to get what he wants and accomplish his personal agenda, this is a dangerous assertion. No Mr. Jabbar, truth is not more important than facts. We have facts so that truths can be corrected, so that truths can be debated. Is it true that Christopher Columbus discovered America? From his perspective, sure. He found it and it was here. But the fact is that Native Americans were here first. That cant be debated. But for centuries schools have taught one truth rather than the facts because it supposedly helps us reach a “greater truth,” that truth being that Columbus and other European explorers were the great civilizers and conquers of the world. That instead of the fact that they completely annihilated Native Americans, we're taught that they broke bread with them in celebration, which we now call Thanksgiving. Today, we all know that truth is a lie, because thankfully there are facts.
The fact that Don Shirley’s music was heavily influenced by Negro spirituals, or the fact that his family says that Mr. Shirley was connected to black people, to his family and to the Civil Rights Movement does matter because it provides context as to who he was. Details that are important to the characterization of Mr. Shirley in this film. These facts provide greater insight into Mr. Shirley’s character and composition, the character that these filmmakers claim was changed through his experience with Mr. Vallelonga. Mr. Jabbar, sir, when presenting history to the public, whether through fiction or non-fiction, truths do not matter more than facts, and we only get to these facts by examining and piecing together multiple truths and the evidences to support them, not just the ones that make us feel good about who we are, who we think others are, or who we all hope to be.
Second, Mr. Jabbar claims that truth is about how the events of the past illuminate the choices we face in the present. Actually, no. Truth, facts and historical accuracy are not only about the choices we face in the present or in the future, they are also about helping us understand how we got to the present and to give us a chance to correct the future. But we can not do that appropriately or accurately if the facts we are presented with to make those choices are untrue. Without the proper criticism, context, or contextual interpretation, the public is prevented from seeing the past and their present with the accuracy needed to make better choices. Historically — and this is a proven fact — those in power have explicitly and oppressively misconstrued and misrepresented the stories of marginalized communities to promote all sorts of things including racism, systemic injustices and movies. Blackface, the “good Asian” versus the “bad Asian” trope, the over-sexualized Latina, these are all misrepresentations of people’s stories and cultures because they are told from the perspective of people with the power to get them financed, produced, and distributed. The misrepresentation of who Mr. Shirley was is not just a mundane fact we should use to help people make better choices in the present — it is part of the plot on which this film was based. If there was no Don Shirley as the conflicted human he may have been, there would be no film. But we don’t get to see the fullness of that, we get one side of the story that has been contested by primary sources who knew Mr. Shirley as well.
There are many ways Green Book filmmakers could have chosen to convey the nuance of Mr. Shirley’s conflict of his self-identity, his despair, and loneliness. Instead, they took an easy route, relying on one truth – Mr. Vallelonga’s – and as this piece is trying to do, dismissing the other — Mr. Shirley’s family. That is not the way historical accounts or creative works on which they are based work. And by all means, this film is claiming to be based on a historical account. It is for this reason we have primary sources and are required to cite them when developing new works. I abhor MLA citations when writing papers, but I have no choice to include them at the end of my paper or I fail my classes. As a journalism student, I was taught that our stories required at least two sources to be suitable for publishing. Why? Because as we piece together history, rather in the distant past or recent present, we rely on the integrity of our storytellers to do their best to get it right. Mr. Jabbar is saying we should excuse Green Book filmmakers who have said that everything that happened in this film is true for these discrepancies because it helps us reach a greater truth? The greater truth is sir, is that this film is potentially based on lies. The fact that Hollywood continues to try and excuse that because it has a “feel-good” moral, calls everybody’s integrity into question.
Third, Mr. Jabbar raises the point that people are saying that this film isn’t “Black enough” because the actual Negro Motorist Green Book isn’t featured more prominently in the film. He counters this argument with the fact that generally, the story is about there being no safe place for Black people to travel. So here is where we get into the question of historical and cultural appropriation. Octavia Spencer has been quoted saying that this was Nick Vallelonga’s story, and that we are getting into questionable territory if a white man cant tell his story in today’s world. There are SO many issues with this argument that I may tackle at another time, but I’ll focus on Mr. Jabbar for now. So the problem is not that this film is not “Black enough,” the problem is that it completely misappropriates the use of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an essential artifact to Black culture and history, to tell Mr. Vallelonga’s story. If this was titled “The Nick Vallelonga Story,” or perhaps “Driving Mr. Shirley” and the Green Book was just a part of it, sure. I’ll let that slide. But the problem — and this has been written about numerous times — is that one of the reasons the choice was made to title this film Green Book is because the book itself has historical significance. Farrelly is quoted in an interview with Shadow and Act that he never knew about the Negro Motorist Green Book, that the white people he knows never knew about the Negro Motorist Green Book, and the Black people he knows — which I am assuming is Octavia Spencer — didn’t know about the Negro Motorist Green Book either. So he decided, at the fervent recommendation of Ms. Spencer, to use it as the title to a film not about the Negro Motorist Green Book but about Mr. Vallelonga.
This is a quintessential example of historical and cultural appropriation of not only Mr. Shirley’s story, but of a cultural and historical artifact — you know, the things that are held, protected, and placed into context at libraries and museums. This is an artifact that was crucial to the survival of Black people traveling in this country. Instead, the actual Green Book is barely seen in the film, is tossed around like trash, and never touches the hands of any Black person in the movie. In addition, in the actual historical part of the movie — the credits — when the filmmakers could have mentioned Victor Green with historical photos and summaries of both Vallelonga and Shirley, they chose not to. Why? Because the film has little do about the actual Green Book. Mr. Green doesn’t exist in a movie titled after the very thing he created. Sure, people do whatever they want with creative license, but perhaps then you should steer aware from doubling-down on the historical accuracy and greater truths of the film. The truth is that this film is hardly about the Green Book at all. So no Mr. Jabbar, this is not about a film being “Black enough” it is about it being accurate enough, respectful enough and historical enough. All of which has been brought into question.
Full disclosure is that that I work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I am also a student in Harvard Extension School’s museum studies program where I am focusing on cultural representation, commerce and social change. This likely explains how I’ve written 2000 words on this subject already. At the Schomburg, we have the largest collection of Green Books in the country along with 11 million other artifacts, manuscripts, rare books, moving images and recordings capturing the experience of people of African descent around the world. We also have Don Shirley recordings which I have spent time listening to and found myself quite surprised by how Black it actually is. As an adult, Arturo Schomburg began collecting these artifacts and creating a Black archive because he was told by an elementary school grade teacher that Black people had no history worth of study, interpretation or contemplation. Close to 100 years later, the institution built by his commitment to proving that teacher wrong stands today, and each day, my colleagues and I continue to prove her wrong by upholding Mr. Schomburg’s legacy.
Mr. Jabbar says that unless filmmakers are making a documentary, they are history’s interpreters, not its chroniclers. Actually sir, they are both interpreters and presenters, and therefore they are also its chroniclers. Chroniclers write accounts of important or historical events. These filmmakers selected a period of time to present and to help audiences interpret and understand that the racist behaviors of that time and our present time are wrong and inhumane. People rely on places like the Schomburg Center, museums, libraries and, yes, works of art based on historical narratives to read, see, hear and understand history, and to be perhaps develop new creative works based on what they learn. To diminish the importance of one or the other through our mass-mediated storytelling — seen and accepted as truth all around the world — is highly problematic. The ways in which this behavior is being excused also lends greater understanding to how people like your president are able to get away with it every day. It’s only that he’s trying to make America great again, right? This end is not justified by these misleading means.
Lastly, and I promise this will be my final point, Mr. Jabbar compares the “buddy” nature of Mr. Shirley’s and Mr. Vallelonga’s relationship to films like Rain Main, Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours, where both men are “changed” by the other. First of all, none of the films he references are based on real stories, therefore, the filmmakers can do whatever they want with the characters. But to alter Mr. Shirley’s story to strengthen the idea that both men were “changed” by the experience when we only have the account of one man from his son is wrong. If Mr. Vallelonga was changed, all power to him. We see that and he gets all the applause. But Mr. Shirley’s family has said that the friendship that gives us this so-called change of character is a lie. No, it is not OK to change who someone is, claim it to be true, when it may not be to make a greater moral point.
Hypothetically, I would compare this to someone producing a film about a water boy who served Mr. Jabbar during his games, and the filmmakers choose to fabricate aspects of Mr. Jabbar’s character to show how both he and the water boy were transformed by their experiences off the court by the bench. I would think that Mr. Jabbar and the people who knew and perhaps love him would find this problematic and, maybe, even hurtful. Mr. Shirley and his family, no matter the circumstances, deserve the same respect.
And no sir, all Black people watching Green Book may not be inspired by his accomplishments as they are presented no more or no less than if the story was told from his point of view. If the story was told from Mr. Shirley’s point of view, we may have experienced the terror of what he saw and felt traveling the road, which caused him to need Mr. Vallelonga’s cover, in a very different way. We may have understood what it was like to have been a man who fought to define himself rather than be defined by the people around him, including by stereotypes of eating friend chicken or listening to “Black music,” even though he actually did both and did not need Mr. Vallelonga’s guidance to become acquainted. This film firmly places Mr. Shirley’s experience within Mr. Vallelonga’s. It flattens him as a character. To be honest, though the performances are very good, the material flattened them both. Vallelonga and Shirley deserved more than an oversimplistic view of who they were and what they experienced alone and together. But as a “buddy” film, there is no balance nor is there any equanimity between this Black genius and his driver who teaches him how to be more of who Vallelonga thinks Shirley should be, rather than who he actually may have been. This should not be overlooked or dismissed.
In their resistance to and outspokenness on this film's content, I believe that the Shirley family is doing exactly what Mr. Jabbar says we all should do. They are refusing to let Hollywood tell them their place. That they should just accept what Hollywood has delivered because it makes critics and some audiences feel really good; that their voices should be dismissed, or that what they have experienced doesn’t matter, is what I feel Mr. Jabbar is hoping we all get to in our cultural production and critical works. What critics of this film’s ahistoricism are saying is that no one will discount or silence voices that continue to be overlooked, or stories that continue to be erased, fabricated or silenced for the “greater good.” In my opinion, there is no good in that at all.
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