If Green Books Could Talk


In a vacuum, the film Green Book is as innocuous as they come. It’s a “buddy movie.” You know the one. Opposites attract when immovable forces bring them together. Your heart will be warmed. It’s supposed to. A sense of amity will suffuse you. You might cry. That’s okay, it happens to the best. And by the end, you will be assured that at the heart of every person there is inherent goodness.

In a vacuum.

In a vacuum, racism is surmountable with good intentions. In a vacuum, racism is not an institution, but a matter of interpersonal interactions. In a vacuum, fried chicken is sufficient enough to bridge 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. When it comes to Hollywood, race exists only in the vacuum. Green Book is not even close to being an anomaly in the catalog of films about race. Its doppelgänger Driving Miss. Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1990, one year before I was born and fifty years after it might have been relevant.

That Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture should surprise precisely no one. It was nominated, many times over, and won just the same. The win will not age well and it’s what the Academy deserve. Academy Awards are not awarded to films on empirical quality alone, but instead requires a relentless campaign and coddling of Oscar voters’ insecurities and anxieties. I am not going to give an accounting of Green Book‘s sins, of which there are many, the least of which, according to some, is it’s just not very good. Empirically. The film tells the story of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, written by his son Nick Vallelonga, and the time, from Frank’s  perspective, that he chauffeured a renowned pianist on a tour of the Midwestern and Southern United States. Along the way, they learn about each other and establish a friendship that purportedly lasted until they died. It’s a very neat film. Tidy.

This is not a film review. At least, it’s not a review of the mechanics of filmmaking, or the caliber of the acting but rather the political consequences of such a film, and, in particular, its triumph over other films more endemic of our political moment. More honest films. Screenwriter and producer Nick Vallelonga said after his dual Oscar win, “Green Book was the best I could make it. I tried being honest about both of the men. It was about friendship. Coming together of two guys on a long crazy roller coaster ride. I was stunned when critics turned it into a political thing.” The fact that he is surprised that a film about racism is considered political means he probably shouldn’t have made a film about race in the first place. In his defense, I don’t think he and other producers set out to make an incisive film about Jim Crow and institutional racism. He lacks sufficient perspective to do anything more than entrench himself in stereotypes and tropes. Green Book was a movie about his parents and the black man in the backseat of the car was a prop.

The politics of Green Book are the politics of Driving Miss Daisy, which won Best Picture in 1990, the same year that Spike Lee’s landmark film Do the Right Thing failed to garner a nomination for the very same category. Spike Lee and his film Blackkklansman lost to Green Book. Lee pointedly said about the loss: “Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose.” The Negro Motorists Green Book, for which the film is erroneously named, was a travel guide book written by Victor Hugo Green for African-Americans wishing to navigate the United States under Jim Crow. Adherence to the Green Book could save your life.

It’s important to note that Green Book was not the only film about race, specifically anti-black racism, nominated by the academy this year. Aside from the aforementioned Blackkklansman, a film about an African-American detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, there was If Beale Street Could Talk, a film about how the criminalization of black bodies can disrupt family, future, and love. Beale Street, adapted from the divine James Baldwin, is a more accurate representation of the black experience. Black Panther is a more accurate representation of the black experience and that film had a grown man dressed as a jungle cat. If Beale Street Could Talk is not a feel-good movie. It is not heartwarming. It is exquisitely painful. Green Book bartered veracity for placidity.

So this is what we mean when we say Own Voices. Nick Vallelonga is stupefied by people who call his film political when to be black in America means being politicized from birth to death and long after that. In Green Book, racism is not political. In Green Book, racism is a question of good manners rather than the pervasive and poisonous bedrock on which our country is founded and which persists through the writing of this article. He had no business writing a movie about a black man when he failed to understand the politics of that specific experience.

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The legacy beyond Green Book is that it perpetuates the fallacy that racism is an individual affliction. Your racist auntie is not the problem. The problem is written into the Constitution. I don’t begrudge people their quest for good feelings. Not every film has to be 12 Years a Slave; but a film, as a part of the cultural zeitgeist, has the power to influence and implicate society and contextualize history. It is therefore dishonest and dangerous to tell anything less than the truth: the truth about Don Shirley, the truth about racism in America, and the truth about the real Green Book.