Green Book is the white-savior trash that no one asked for.
The movie takes its name from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a real-life travel guide for Black motorists originally published in 1936. The book helped Black travelers find towns, lodging, and restaurants at a time when much of America at large was inhospitable—if not literally closed—to them. Green Book is based on the true story of Jamaican American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the white driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who accompanies him on a concert tour in the 1960s. “Really interesting!” you might think, “A road-trip movie about a Black musician in the Jim Crow South!” In fact, Green Book makes Shirley the sidekick in his own life story, focusing instead on Vallelonga’s accidental awakening (They’re on a literal journey and he’s making a symbolic journey, get it?) to becoming not racist.
The film’s problems don’t stop with its (corny, racist, magical negro) plot. In November, Mortensen let the n-word fly at a screening as he talked misguidedly about how far society has come with regard to racial discourse. “For instance, no one says ‘nigger’ anymore,” Mortensen said, in the worst and least self-aware illustration of a point that didn’t need to be made. (Especially since plenty of people do still use the word.) According The Hollywood Reporter, audience members at the event were shocked, and Mortensen had to issue an apology.
A few days after Green Book won big at this year’s Golden Globes, Green Book screenwriter Nick Vallelonga (the real-life son of Green Book’s main character) found himself in a similar pickle thanks to a resurfaced tweet in which he told Donald Trump that he, too, recalled witnessing Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Trump’s claim has been widely debunked, and Vallelonga has since deleted his Twitter account.
This week also featured the reminder, courtesy of a 1998 Newsweek story, that Green Book director Peter Farrelly was formerly well known on his previous films for flashing his penis to actresses at work. In the article, Cameron Diaz (star of There’s Something About Mary) says he showed her his penis the very first time they met; in an Observer article the same year, Farrelly further describes his harassment technique, and his assurances that dick flashing is just good old-fashioned on-set fun are really something:
“‘It’s a joke,’ he explains patiently. ‘It’s not like I make a habit of just whipping it out and saying, ‘Hey! Look! My cock!’ We do a joke where, it’s like, Bob says, ‘Pete’s been really crazy, he went out and spent $500 on a belt buckle.’ I go, ‘Bob, it’s an investment, it’s not a big deal.’ He says, ‘You’re stupid! $500 on a belt buckle!’ I say it’s not stupid … Finally she says, ‘Let me see it.’ And I lift my shirt and have it …’ he grins ‘hanging over.’”
He wasn’t just tricking the actresses in his films into looking at his dick—it was a joke. Duh! It’s hard to imagine being so blithe about your own horrendous (and illegal) behavior that you would admit to performing this “trick” “easily 500 times,” but Farrelly sure did.
And literally, no one asked for this film. On the day of Green Book’s release, Don Shirley’s brother, Maurice Shirley, released a statement saying the plot was full of inaccuracies and noting that he was “in agreement with Malcolm X who proffered that ‘every White man in America profits directly or indirectly from his position vis-a-vis Negroes, profits from racism even though he does not practice it or believe it.’” Shirley added, “This movie, ‘The Green Book’ is NOT about MY brother, but about money, white privilege, assumption, and Tony Lip!” Elsewhere, Shirley’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, called the movie “a white man’s version of a black man’s life.”
It’s unsurprising that Green Book won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy last weekend because (white) audiences and the (overwhelmingly white) voting bodies for film awards love sappy and simplistic fables about well-meaning white people who triumph over racism with the help of understanding and never-angry Black folks. (Remember all the acclaim for Crash? The Help? Driving Miss Daisy?). Green Book could have done something important by showing the complexities of Shirley’s career and how dangerous travel has always been for Black travelers in America, but instead, the rich history of The Negro Motorist Green Book and Shirley’s journey were hijacked by white men who wanted to valorize white men.
That all of this is coming out in the week before Oscar-nomination voting begins is a good sign that Green Book will not be Crash 2.0. And it better not be, especially in a year that also featured Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s already evident that plenty of Hollywood’s major players are tired of feel-good historical whitewashing; just watch the audience’s faces during Farrelly’s Globes acceptance speech as he shares his quaint solution to solving racism: listening to one another. It’s time to stop buying this bullshit.
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