When will Hollywood stop centering white people in Black stories? If the much-lauded Peter Farrelly film ‘Green Book’ is any indication, no time soon.
The film supposedly gets its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an iconic Black travel guide published from 1936-1966 by Victor Hugo Green and his wife Alma Green. Green was a well-connected Black mailman whose Green Book documented restaurants, hotels, gas stations and more that Black travelers and vacationers could safely use while traveling throughout the country — from the segregated Jim Crow South to his hometown in New York City. The north was no safe space for Black people and Green and his book show that.
“Carry your Green Book with you—You may need it,” the cover of the book urged its readers. And carry it they did.
Just not in this ahistorical film.
Green Books Deserved Better
In Farrelly’s Green Book, Black people don’t even touch the Green Book, let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives. Instead, the film centers the story of a racist white man who makes an unlikely Black friend on a journey through the American south and becomes slightly less racist.
In this reverse-Driving Miss Daisy film, Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony Lip, an Italian American bouncer hired to drive and protect Mahershala Ali’s queer, Jamaican-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a concert tour from Manhattan down to the deep south.
The first mention of the Negro Motorist Green Book in the film is when a white representative from Dr. Shirley’s record company pulls Lip aside to hand him a copy and explain that Lip will need it to know where he can safely take Dr. Shirley on this trip down south.
“Three years ago when we started writing this thing, no one knew about it –not no one, obviously, but nobody I knew,” Farrelly told Shadow and Act about why he chose to title his movie Green Book. “White people didn’t know about it, I didn’t know about it, and most of the Black people that I spoke with didn’t know about,” he said.
And you still won’t know about it after watching this movie, because the Green Book, much like the film, only exists as a prop to enhance white understanding of white racism and white privilege in this country.
But that understanding is limited because this story is told from Tony Lip’s perspective. And, again, Tony Lip is a racist.
We see how racist Lip is as he lets anti-Black pejoratives like “eggplant” hang from his lips as easily as the cigarettes he chainsmokes. When two Black service workers enter his home and drink beverages from glasses Lip’s wife offered to them, Lip promptly takes their empty glasses out of the sink and throws them in the garbage can so no one in his home will have to use the same glass Black people used once. Because the bar for a racist’s growth is beneath the floor, the audience is meant to use this scene as a benchmark to tell how far he’s come by the end of the film when he and Dr. Shirley become lifelong friends. But a racist’s relationship with individual Black people is not the same as being anti-racist. Ask Sally Hemmings.
So, Lip’s racism must also be the lens through which we view the details of this story, as well. Though the Green Book he shuffles through for Dr. Shirley promises comfortable hotels, through Lip’s eyes, the motels he finds are not cozy homes away from home but rundown slums crawling with stray cats and dice-shooting Black people. Lip even remarks to himself that the Green Book is essentially offering false advertising to its desperate consumers.
On a press call about the Negro Motorist Green Book with Maira Liriano, Associate Chief Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture–which holds the largest collection of Green Books in the country–Liriano strongly disputed this characterization to Shadow and Act:
“I’ve never heard that, in the years that I’ve been working with researchers and scholars studying the Green Books, I’ve not encountered ‘false advertising’ within the Green Books. So I don’t think that was very accurate,” Liriano says.
“I’m not saying every single place was wonderful and fabulous that was listed in the Green Books, but I feel like they don’t do it justice (in the film).”
Mahershala Ali deserved better
But while the real Green Books don’t match their depiction in this film and the title doesn’t match the premise of the film, the movie poster most certainly is accurate. Mortensen is front and center on the poster and Green Book is his star vehicle. The brilliant Ali (and, therefore, Dr. Shirley) literally and figuratively takes a back seat.
The film opens with Mortensen nailing the stereotypical New York Italian accent and spends several minutes unfolding his white working-class enclave through his eyes. At the Copacabana where he works, we see his street-smart hustling and tough-guy persona, which is softened only by his loving interactions with his wife and kids back at home.
After an uncomfortably long absence, Ali enters the picture about 20 minutes in and is dazzling. We see him as Dr. Shirley in his palatial (for Manhattan) apartment above Carnegie Hall (!!!!), dressed like a king, surrounded by precious stones, statues and trinkets from around the globe (gifts! from his friends!) and sitting on a literal throne.
Through Google–not through this movie–I learned that the musical prodigy Dr. Shirley created his own genre of music. “He often melded American and European traditions by embedding a well-known melody within a traditional classical structure,” the New York Times wrote in its 2013 obituary of this unsung icon. Imagine having a queer Black protagonist in the ’60s, a literal prodigy, living lavishly above the actual performance hall of the most iconic prodigies, who has his own throne room, and choosing to tell the story of his life from the racist white guy’s perspective. Oh, what Ali could’ve done with a Dr. Shirley movie!
“I wrote [Green Book] with [Tony Lip’s son] Nick Vallelonga, and at the beginning we talked like, ‘Which side do we tell this from?'” Director Farrelly told Shadow and Act about why he chose to tell the story from the racist white guy’s perspective. “But we had way more audio tapes of Tony Lip telling his story,” Farrelly said, including that Vallelonga had also met Dr. Shirley and could provide the additional information needed to tell this story. “It seemed like the natural way to tell it was from Tony Lip’s side.”
So, instead, we get mere glimpses of who the world-class Black pianist with three doctorates was, as the story quickly pivots back to Lip, who has been invited to Dr. Shirley’s home to interview for the driver position. Lip is desperate for money for his family after the Copacabana has been shut down for repairs, and though the 8-week / $125-per-week job is tempting, Lip makes it clear he’s not going to be a Black man’s butler for any price. Dr. Shirley will have to handle his own bags, though if anybody needs roughing up, Lip is happy to oblige. The racist gets the job.
Dr. Shirley deserved better
I keep circling back to Lip’s racism because it baffles me that in 2018 Hollywood is still in the business of not only humanizing racists but letting racists like Lip tell stories about Black people. Because Green Book is not just about Dr. Shirley through Lip’s eyes. It’s also about the everyday, non-prodigy Black people that Lip and Dr. Shirley encounter on their journey.
When the odd couple hit the deep south and pull over the car to the side of the road, Black sharecroppers stop their toiling to stare at the finely dressed Dr. Shirley in his fancy Cadillac, being chauffeured by a white man. What are they thinking when they look at him as the camera holds on their tired faces? They don’t actually speak, so we’ll never know.
But considering the “hopeful” tone that always accompanies a film where a white racist befriends a Black person but does nothing to help end structural racism, I’d speculate that Farrelly sought to convey two points with this scene. First, aspirational Black pride. Look at the rich Black man doing well! One day this could be us! Second, that Dr. Shirley is a special kind of Black person.
He is without doubt quite different from these Black sharecroppers, as well as the Black bellboys and valets who stand outside and shoot craps while Dr. Shirley performs for rich white audiences. Lip, on the other hand, is closer to Black people–and Black culture–than Dr. Shirley could ever be, Lip suggests. Lip, who has a sixth grade education, shoots craps–and wins!–with the Black workers.
More than once, Lip lectures Dr. Shirley on his lack of interaction with mainstream Black culture, chastising him for not knowing who Little Richard is and not eating fried chicken like his people. Lip’s simplistic understanding of Blackness is played for laughs; he’s a harmless racist who simply doesn’t know any better, lol! “I’m Blacker than you!” Lip declares, sans irony, not long before he sleeps comfortably in his whites-only hotel.
Dr. Shirley, on the other hand, sits outside of his room at his rundown motel, separate from the other Black guests. There are no other Black vacationers or Black musicians on tour, or any kind of Black person other than the very poor and the very poorly mannered. Instead of community, at the Green Book-advertised motel, Dr. Shirley finds contempt as he posts up in his silk robe, sipping whiskey, and refusing to indulge his neighbors in their game. He’s not like the rest of the Blacks, see?
Instead of engaging his Black neighbors, Dr. Shirley sneaks away to the local YMCA where he hooks up with a gay white man. Instead of drinking in a Black establishment where he’s welcomed, he sneaks into a whites-only bar for a drink. His mission is to tour the south to “change [white] people’s hearts” (I can’t help but think of Langston Hughes here: “They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.”).
It’s Lip who convinces Dr. Shirley to embrace other Black people, to eat fried chicken, to listen to Black music, to play the piano in a Black bar. In one of his final acts of white saviorism, Lip puts an arm of protection in front of Dr. Shirley before shooting a gun into the air to scare away the Black people that he’s intuited are trying to break into Dr. Shirley’s car. It’s Lip who must teach Dr. Shirley not to count his money in a public place or Black people will try to rob him.
It’s Lip who gets Dr. Shirley out of handcuffs when Dr. Shirley’s arrested for engaging in sexual activity with the white man at the YMCA. It’s Lip who stops racist white men with guns from killing Dr. Shirley at that whites-only bar. It’s Lip who must tell Dr. Shirley never to go out alone in the south without Lip there to protect him.
Because this is based on Lip’s version of events. Because this is a white savior story. And moviegoers who will leave this movie having learned for the first time that Dr. Shirley and Green Books existed but only through a white lens, deserved better than this shallow introduction to an integral part of Black history.
“Don Shirley goes down south because he chooses to go,” Ali tells Shadow and Act about why he doesn’t view this film as a white savior film. “He hires (Tony Lip) as a choice,” he says, “So he’s not really in need of Tony Lip in the way in which we may think of needing that character, usually.”
And yet, we don’t see Dr. Shirley’s story in Green Book without Lip’s lens. Without Lip, there is literally no movie. And perhaps that would’ve been best.