Race Relations Made Easy and False
NOTE: This dissection of the film Green Book refers to a few plot points. If you have not seen the film, you may want to hold off on reading this until later.There was a bet between publisher Bennett Cerf and writer Dr. Seuss (neé Theodore Geisel) in 1960. Cerf, the founder of Random House, bet Seuss that he could not write a decent children’s book with a limited vocabulary that comprised only 50 words in total. Dr. Seuss took the bet, and he won it by creating the children's classic, Green Eggs and Ham.
That book turned out to be the most popular of Seuss’s works, selling a couple hundred million copies. It also provides an important lesson: You can make a point more easily and memorably if you limit your vocabulary. Apparently, the makers of the Oscar-nominated Green Book took this principle to heart.
Set in 1962, Green Book tells a tale of racial understanding between Dr. Don Shirley, an African American musician played by Mahershala Ali, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American from the Bronx. As Don embarks on a performance tour through the American Midwest and the Deep South, he hires Tony to be his chauffeur. The titular “green book” was a series of publications African Americans used in that period to find restaurants and lodging that were safe and accommodating. So Tony is required not only to transport Don from point A to point B safely, but he would also provide protective muscle should any danger arise.
Their first meeting during a job interview is inauspicious. Don (holder of a doctorate in several disciplines) lives in an artists’ colony of sorts above Carnegie Hall. He enters the scene like a spirit, dressed in a gauzelike fabric and practically floating. We learn immediately through their conversation that he is much more refined than Tony. Even after Tony gets the job, there is distrust between them. For example, when Tony gets out of the car at the start of the trip to take a leak in the woods, he comes back to grab his wallet from the dashboard. Just to be sure; after all, a guy can’t be too careful, even with an employer who has way more money.
As the movie progresses, we find that they can both be quite insufferable. Don is often imperious; Tony is quick-tempered and impulsive. But true to form in such bromides, the two bond and teach each other “important lessons.” For example, Don edits Tony’s letters to his wife back in the Bronx to make them more eloquent (and, of course, he does it condescendingly). Tony teaches Don how to be more black because the good doctor is clearly out of touch with his “own people” (Tony’s term). We learn this when Don steps out of his car on a back road. A group of sharecroppers stare at this well-dressed man as though he has arrived from another planet. (This interminable sequence is just one example of Green Book’s lack of subtlety.) Tony teaches Don about his own culture by introducing him to Little Richard, Chubby Checker, and Aretha Franklin (the last a remarkable feat in itself, as Tony is playing Respect on the radio five years before the record was even released). Don reveals that he is estranged from his brother, and Tony, being Italian, gets to school him on "the importance of family." Finally, in what the filmmakers seem to consider an intercultural triumph, Tony introduces Don to fried chicken and helps the good doctor overcome his disdain for its greasiness.
There is no denying the chemistry between Ali and Mortensen. The two leads work hard to bring more substance to their portrayals than the script deserves. Ali conveys a genuine dignity in his reading of Don Shirley. With little more than a narrowing of Ali's eyes, one can feel the weight of the ignominies Don must endure in spite of his education and talent. One incident in a Deep South police station illustrates sharply how he copes with his rank in 1960s America. Don gets along by going along, often choking back his anger, swallowing his pride. And then again, sometimes he does not, which causes a different set of problems.
What is worst about Green Book is its “white savior” trope — the idea that black characters need to be rescued by white people.Similarly, the remarkable Mortensen once again expands his resume with his depiction of an Italian American. His blond, Nordic hair is darkened, and his normally trim and saturnine build is overweight, bulging and menacing in a way we have not seen from him before. His spoken Italian is very good. This is especially evident when he shares the screen with other actors; his pronunciation is so much better. Yet I still found the stereotype insulting. Mortensen apparently went to the Sylvester Stallone School of Acting to learn how to play an Italian American, inarticulately mumbling his way through words. Tony can’t even spell. When he drafts a letter to his steadfast wife back home, his salutation is spelled d-e-e-r, not d-e-a-r.
In the end, one may say “so what?” to these shortcomings. After all, the movie is “nice.” The two principals come to care for each other, there is peace in the valley by the end, and they respond affirmatively to the question, “Can’t we all just get along?”
There are two problems with this conclusion. One is that the underlying story is just not true, going well beyond the slack that we assign to that nebulous concept, “artistic license.” Dr. Don Shirley’s remaining family has made quite clear that they were never consulted for the film, so the perspective is strictly from the Vallelongas’ side. For one thing, the Shirleys have stated that Tony was nothing more or less than an employee. And apparently, he was an annoying one. He would not wear his chauffeur’s uniform nor did he want to lift Don’s bags. The two men also did not remain friends after this adventure was over as the film states, according the Shirley family.
Shirley’s 2013 obituary in The New York Times never mentions Vallelonga or the tour through the Deep South. The implication that Don Shirley was not involved with the African American community or his own family is also not true. He attended many of the civil rights events of the era, and he was friends with many black artists, notably Duke Ellington. Shirley’s surviving brother, Maurice, said he and his other brothers were never estranged from Don. (It is reported that Ali contacted the Shirley family to apologize for misrepresenting Don.)
What is worst about Green Book is its continuation of the “white savior” trope in American film — the idea that black characters need to be rescued from their plights by a white man (or a white girl, as seen in The Help). As you review Shirley’s obituary, he was poised to make a mark on his own terms. He was a musical prodigy who, by necessity, created a singular style that crossed genres. He composed orchestral works that were admired by Igor Stravinsky. He played at La Scala in Milan, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Despite these accomplishments, he would not be addressed as “doctor,” and he could not pursue the career he truly wanted because the world was “not ready” for someone like him — a black classical artist.
If you are ready to take a serious look at the racial divisions in our society, don’t turn to Green Book. Even with the film’s virtues, such as the two sturdy lead performances, handsome cinematography, and graceful editing, its content is more representative of the attitudes of the Kennedy era in which it is set than those of today. It is also hampered by the limited lexicon of a white onlooker who was a bystander in the civil rights era. In the end, Green Book is not even a meal on a par with Green Eggs and Ham. It is pabulum.