What Green Book Gets Right About Race And Racism

Every Christmas, my late father made us watch, and then rewatch, two movies: “The Sound of Music” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

These films set the bar for holiday movies. They are sentimental — even cheesy. They feature superb actors at the top of their game, hamming it up. There are simple plotlines of love, loss and love again. Throw in their Pavlovian scores, and these are the kind of films that can sustain multiple viewings, sending different nuanced messages over a lifetime.

I swear I could see a tear sneak down my gruff dad’s bearded face every time. They spoke to his West Indian immigrant heart. More important, they conveyed the two most important values my parents passed down to me: relentless optimism and the power of art to connect us to our humanity.

Unfortunately, these two values often crumble when it comes to realities of race in America. So, when I saw the trailers for “Green Book,” I mostly rolled my eyes. A black-white buddy film about a segregation-era road trip down South? It looked like a cross between “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Help.” Yet another formulaic film in which a Magical Negro enables a white hero to live his best life? No, thanks.

My 15-year-old daughter didn’t want any of this race-film broccoli either. But I’m working on some projects on segregation, so I bribed her to go see it with me. Two hours later, we were sitting in a dark theater, both of us wiping away tears at what was, we had to admit, a fabulous and thought-provoking film. 

Some critics have not been kind to “Green Book,” in which Mahershala Ali plays master pianist Don Shirley on a concert tour, and Viggo Mortensen plays his gruff Italian-American driver, Tony Lip, in the early 1960s. (Some of Shirley’s relatives say the film overstates the men’s bond.)

The critics say it is manipulative and sugary. True. They say the title is misleading. Also true. It looks like a story about racial segregation, which it sort of is, but it is much more than that. It is a story about two people who develop an unlikely friendship amid a historically stressful backdrop. 

But the fact that they had to consult the Green Book, a guide to black travelers who were barred from whites-only public accommodations, remains one of the most mundane realities about how life is lived in America. Given our still-segregated nation and the dangers of Living While Black across 50 states, it is far from an anachronism.

But when the critics say the film is not that smart about race, they’re dead wrong. The film is about race, but it is even more specifically about multiple forms of privilege. It’s about intersectionality — the overlapping layers of privilege and disadvantage that shape-shift in fairly mundane ways. We rarely get such lighthearted vehicles to talk about that.

When the critics say the film is not that smart about race, they’re dead wrong.

For instance, at one point Tony Lip, the cartoonishly uneducated tough guy, says that he, a white guy from the Bronx, is blacker than Shirley. Tony, after all, is the one who introduces Dr. Shirley to fine American sensory pleasures of the sounds of Little Richard and taste of fried chicken. Dr. Shirley retorts that Tony will never know the sting of being rejected by white society, estranged from black society and condemned for his sexuality, leaving no room to breathe.

Tony is not only privileged because he is allowed to go to whites-only restaurants and hotels in the South; he is also privileged because he is male, straight and leads a nuclear family. Sure, he competes in hotdog-eating contests to make rent but, as my daughter pointed out, over the course of the movie he is offered a ridiculous number of jobs by concerned fellow white men who refuse to see him fail as head of his household.

And yet, as the film makes clear, Dr. Shirley is privileged in so many other ways. He is educated and has impeccable diction. His regal bearing and manners are refined in a way that Tony’s will never be. He moves in and out of the grandest homes of American aristocracy with an ease most Americans never will possess.

But beneath Shirley’s exquisite manners and patrician bearing lies a person struggling to find the warm embrace of fellow humans. I found a similar quality in the new biography of Harlem Renaissance architect Alain Locke. Like Shirley, Locke was an unabashed elitist who rejected the culture of the black masses. But like Shirley, his embrace of fine art was really more about avoiding the sting of rejection because of his sexuality. Shirley, we learn in “Green Book,” seeks to sail into a higher orbit or expression that lifts him off the ground that rejects him.

Wokeness doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over time. And it helps if people can be locked in a room together ― or in a car ― for an extended period of time and must rely on each other.

The fact that Tony starts out the film as outwardly racist and ends up marginally less racist does not “absolve real-life white people of their real-life bullshit,” as HuffPost’s Zeba Blay wrote. It is a more realistic depiction of the speed at which real-life attitudes move. Wokeness doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over time. And it helps if people can be locked in a room together ― or in a car ― for an extended period of time and must rely on each other for survival.  

Thanks to the segregation that continues to reign in our public and private institutions, there aren’t too many opportunities for us to have these breakthroughs. We rarely get the opportunity to reach across divides and emerge seeing the world differently. The movie solves nothing, but it makes these divides dramatic, visible and appropriately absurd.

And I am happy to have lived long enough to have witnessed the release of a major film in which the Magical Negro, the lovable buffoon, is played by an Italian-American in service of a black man.

True, “Green Book’s” message goes down easy, and true, the finale is a bluesy, crowd-pleasing performance in a black bar. That doesn’t make “Green Book” any less smart, hopeful or sweet. To my eye, that makes it a perfect Christmas movie.

Natalie Hopkinson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her most recent book is A Mouth Is Always Muzzled.

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