I’m White and Liked Green Book.
Now It’s My Responsibility to Reevaluate
By Anna Tingley
3 · 17 · 2019
Like many white people across the country, I thoroughly enjoyed Green Book. I appreciated the artful cinematography as the story journeyed its two leading characters, played by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, across the sprawling plains of the South. I found myself laughing at the outrageously funny dialogue between the the film’s archetypal, almost hyperbolic, characters. The upbeat musical score engaged me throughout its entirety. And I felt moved, almost to tears, as the end of the drama tied up in a heartwarming twist.
The award-winning film tells the true story of the master pianist Don Shirley (Ali) as he tours across the U.S in the early 1960s alongside Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen), a blue collar chauffeur from the Bronx. As they travel through the South, it’s Vallelonga’s job to project Shirley from the intense racism and segregation he experiences, opening his eyes to bigotry that he’d never known.
What makes so much of the film engaging is the banter between the two as they slowly get to know each other; while Vallelonga makes extra money from betting on hot dog-eating contests on the weekend, Shirley prefers to engage in intellectual discussions about philosophy. Vallelonga enjoys unapologetically digging into a bucket of fried chicken on the road while Shirley would prefer not to get his suit greasy. But as they spend more time together, they begin appreciating the other’s idiosyncrasies. While the beginning of the story sees Vallelonga making racist assumptions about the musician -- he refers to Aretha Franklin and Little Richie as Don’s “people” and is convinced he’d love watermelon -- the story ends with the two characters celebrating Christmas together like family. It seems that Vallelonga was able to get past his own deeply ingrained racism by spending a few months in the car with a black man.
The film did a good job of convincing me of this, and apparently also the Academy of which only 16 percent are people of color. This comes as no surprise – the movie is objectively good. The team behind the film is made up of some of the best of the best of Hollywood. They know how to make a good movie. Its director, Peter Farelly, has been at the helm of iconic movies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Brian Curry, who helped Farelly adapt Vallelonga’s screenplay, has dozens of well-acclaimed titles to his name, too. Everyone from the film editors to the composers to the cameramen to the award-winning actors on screen are good at what they do: they know how to make you laugh and keep you at the edge of your seat and leave the theater feeling changed from the person you were when walked in.
But the thing is, when a movie claims to represent racial relations and accurately portray an era of bigotry, a history that has ruined and even cost the lives of real people, it has to be more than good. It has to be right. And who gets to decide if a movie has gotten a narrative right? The people who the story is about. And that’s why the Academy, a predominantly white institution, got it wrong. At least according to those who have a say in the matter.
It’s also not the only time it has. Green Book is far from the only movie that follows such a trope and received an Oscar. Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, Crash, and The Blind Side all follow a white protagonist who utilizes a personal connection to a black character to overcome their racism. Each time, black critics seem to have a problem. Spike Lee was particularly not shy about his criticism, whose film Blackkklansman lost Best Picture to Green Book this year, and also lost to Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose!” he said after his snub.
So, it’s my turn to swallow my pride and listen. Why is Green Book problematic? Here’s what I’ve learned:
Attempts to tell a black man’s story through a white man’s POV:
Many would say that Green Book is Don Shirley’s story – he was the acclaimed musician the film’s entire storyline is based around. But Ali, who played Shirley, won Best Supporting Actor while Mortensen was up for Best Actor in a Leading Role. That’s really all there is to show whose point of view was valued more in the making of the film. Vallelonga’s own son was the writer who adapted his father’s experiences to the screen but it seems strange to represent the injustice of 1960s segregation from anyone’s point of view other than the black man experiencing it. While it’s not inherently wrong for Vallelonga to be involved in the project -- it is, in part, his father’s story -- he should’ve at least made an effort to bring more black perspectives into its making.
Feeds into the “white savior” narrative:
As the pair is confronted with more and more segregation as they progress on their journey, it becomes Vallelonga’s job to protect Shirley from racist locals looking for a fight. At one point he comes between Shirley and four drunks at a nearby bar who are threatening his life because he’s a “dirty n*****.” In the scene, as we see him stand stoically in front of Shirley, we see Vallelonga as a saint — a man willing to risk his own safety to save his new friend. We almost forget that at the beginning of the film we see him throw away two glasses from his kitchen after seeing two black helpers drinking out of them. Or that when he first found out about the job, one that would entail him to drive around a black man, he almost didn’t take it even though his family desperately needed the money. Somehow we’re convinced into thinking that Vallelonga is above the racism he’s surrounded by because of his loyalty to Shirley. But this loyalty isn’t even completely genuine — he’s getting paid for the protective role he takes on. We find ourselves praising Vallelonga for quite literally doing his one job.
Problematic characters never confront racist mentalities and ignorance:
On top of all this, Vallelonga never confronts the racism he displays at the beginning of the film. We see him learn more about Shirley as a human, and in turn, what the black experience really means. But the movie makes it seem as though he finally understands the complexity of racial dynamics in 1960s America when we never really see him put that understanding into action. When the two get into trouble with the police after Shirley gets into drunken trouble at a bar one night, Vallelonga is combative with the officers in a way that lands them both in jail. He doesn’t understand that black men don’t have the privilege to interact with authority in the same way. We see this again when Shirley is asked to pee in a outhouse rather than a bathroom during one of his performances at a white family’s mansion and Vallelonga suggests Shirley just pee on the lawn in retaliation. He doesn’t seem to understand that black men can’t afford to be angry even when it’s justified.
But as he invites Shirley to his family’s Christmas dinner at the end of the film, and even criticizes a family member for a racist remark (something we would never see him do at the beginning of the film), the movie makes it seem as though he finally understands racial dynamics. The ending seems to serve as the happy ending to Vallelonga’s journey in becoming a better person even though we have yet to see him interact with another black man in a setting of another kind.
Uses the black character as a vehicle to help the white character:
In doing all this, Shirley is simply a black vehicle through which Vallelonga can come to terms with his own racism. The entire movie, it’s up to Shirley to help Vallelonga understand the injustices around him . While Shirley attempts to avoid this added responsibility, it becomes impossible to when Vallelonga’s ignorance consistently gets the two into trouble. With Ali’s character in simply a supporting role, it’s clear that he’s simply fulfilling a “black friend” role to fulfill another white man’s narrative.
Simplifies racism into simple and solvable problem:
This all works together to water down the nuanced ways racial dynamics work. Spending a few hours with a black man can certainly expand your worldview, but can’t solve deeply ingrained racist mentalities. Accepting one black man isn’t the equivalent of accepting blackness. And convincing yourself that it’s the same is to kid yourself. We all are capable of biases and intolerance — it’s not about pretending that we don’t have them but working to understand how those mentalities play out so we can become better allies.
At the end of the day, the film had good intentions. It aimed to break down racial barriers and tell the story of a racist man becoming a better person. And if you enjoyed the movie, like I did, that’s perfectly valid opinion. But just know that a good movie isn’t always a right movie. And as a white person, that’s not an opinion that’s up for discussion.