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Green Book review: how the movie flattens America’s racist history – Vox.com

The movie is named after guides published for black travelers in segregated America. But its spin is all Hollywood.

By Alissa Wilkinson Updated

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Patti Perret / Universal Studios

Green Book took home three Golden Globe Awards on Sunday for Best Comedy, Best Screenplay, and supporting actor Mahershala Ali — and that’s hardly a surprise. A period piece that’s also a road trip movie and a buddy dramedy? Based on a true story? With two strong performances and a heartwarming message about overcoming prejudice? That ends at a Christmas celebration? Sign America up (or at least the Hollywood Foreign Press Association).

The film, directed by comedy veteran Peter Farrelly, stars Viggo Mortensen and Ali. It’s “inspired” by the true friendship of Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American chauffeur/bodyguard from the Bronx, and Don Shirley, the black pianist Vallelonga is hired to drive and protect on a concert tour through the deep South in 1962. It’s often funny, with some poignant moments and a heart that feels like it’s in the right place.

Yet curiously, the Green Book itself doesn’t play much of a role in the film. Mortensen’s character, Tony, takes it on the trip and leafs through it several times. Early on, he briefly explains its purpose to his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini): to provide black travelers with information about “safe” places to stay and to eat while they travel. He’ll need to refer to it to do his job, getting Shirley from gig to gig safely throughout the musician’s eight-week tour.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Universal Pictures

But after that, the book is not mentioned by name, even as the pair encounter the full gamut of racism during the trip — ranging from casual remarks to “genteel” discrimination to violent hostility from civilians, bar patrons, and police. Indeed, we typically see it only when Tony quietly picks it up to find motels in which Shirley can safely stay.

When Farrelly took the stage to accept the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, he used the opportunity to reiterate the film’s themes (and demand that the orchestra not play him off):

Green Book is a story of a trip that — [to the orchestra] please, no, turn that off. No, go away. Off.

Okay. This is a story of the trip that Don Shirley took in the pre-Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Don Shirley was a great man and underappreciated genius who couldn’t play the music he wanted to play, simply because of the color of his skin. Yet he went on to create his own music that still resonates to this day.

… This story, when I heard it, gave me hope, and I wanted to share this hope with you. Because we are still living in divided times, and that’s what this movie is for: It’s for everybody. If they can find common ground here, we all can.

All we have to do is talk and to not judge people by their differences, but look for what we have in common. And we have a lot in common. We all want the same thing: We want love and happiness and want to be treated equally. And that’s not a bad thing.

Farrelly’s speech is of a piece with the film’s approach to racism, common to Hollywood films, which is to suggest that relationships between individuals will heal centuries of racism. And indeed, Green Book’s treatment of racism is uneven at best. In an early scene, for instance, Tony throws away two drinking glasses that black construction workers used in his kitchen, suggesting he draws a hard line about even coming into contact with black people. But a movie like this needs a “likable” hero, and after that moment, he doesn’t engage in such blatantly offensive behavior for the rest of the film. As an Italian American, Tony would have experienced plenty of discrimination himself, but the film only hints at it.

But even setting aside the characters’ development, for a movie named Green Book, it’s light on details about the actual, well, Green Book. It also seems to imply that such a guide was only really necessary in the Deep South, which rang false to me. Watching it, I worried that the screenplay — written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and the real-life Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who clearly drew on his father’s remembrance of the trip — might have glossed over the reality experienced by black Americans like Shirley.

But before seeing the movie, I didn’t know much about the Green Book itself, so I dug into its history to learn more. What I learned helped me see the ways in which Green Book doesn’t go nearly far enough in confronting its subject, and winds up trivializing serious matters as a result.

Here are four things I learned about the Green Book, and what it says about Green Book.

If you were a black American in the middle of the 20th century, you almost certainly knew about the Green Book

For middle-class Americans in the 1930s, the newfound availability of safe, affordable automobiles was not just a matter of convenience. It meant new possibilities, the ability to travel around the country at their leisure, without relying on anyone else. That was also true for African Americans, even in a country that was legally segregated in some places and functionally segregated virtually everywhere else.

But while white travelers could move with relative freedom, stopping into restaurants, bars, entertainment establishments, and places of lodging as they pleased, road travel was more fraught for African Americans. Staying in the wrong hotel, or trying to eat at the wrong establishment, could get you kicked out or much worse.

The Negro Motorist Green Book wasn’t the only travel book aimed at black motorists in America, but it was the most popular. It was created by Victor Hugo Green, an African-American mail carrier who lived in Harlem and worked in nearby Hackensack, New Jersey. Green worked on the project for three decades, from 1936 to 1966, shortly after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, with a break during World War II for about four years. The Green Book swiftly became the most vital document for black travelers in America, detailing places where they could eat, drink, and spend the night without being harassed or worse.

Twenty-two editions of the Green Book (and one supplement), published from 1937 to 1966, have since been collected and digitized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. “From what I can tell, [Green] had a car, he was very interested in cars, and he decided to create a travel guide that helped black travelers, or black motorists, be able to take advantage of the newfound freedom of having a car,” Maira Liriano, the chief librarian and curator of the center’s Green Book collection, told me.

Cover of The Negro Motorist Green Book (1940 edition)
Wikimedia Commons/Collection of the NYPL

The Green Books were mostly devoted to options for lodging and dining, but they contained other information too. “There were listings for rest stops, restaurants, barber shops, beauty shops,” Liriano says. And in some towns, especially smaller ones, no hotel would offer lodging to black people. For many of those, the Green Book listed “tourist homes,” which Liriano describes as “sort of like a precursor to Airbnb.” Black homeowners, mostly in the South, would rent a room in their home to black travelers looking for somewhere to spend the night.

That was especially important in so-called “sundown towns,” which passed laws designed to drive black people out of town that prohibited them from being on the road at night. One such town is depicted in Green Book.

Sundown towns weren’t specifically mentioned in the Green Book. But there were about 10,000 sundown towns in the US as late as the 1960s, and not just in the South: Levittown, New York; Glendale, California; and most Illinois municipalities were among their number. And while it could be dangerous to be on the road at night, it could be equally dangerous to check into the wrong hotel. In an age where you couldn’t just whip out your phone and look up Yelp reviews — and in which you could literally risk your life by being in the wrong part of town with the wrong skin color — you needed a guide.

So if you were traveling while black, you knew about the Green Book, because you had to, for your own safety. In his 2000 memoir A Colored Man’s Journey through 20th Century Segregated America, Earl Hutchinson Sr. (believed to be the oldest black American to publish a memoir, at age 96), wrote that “the Green Book was the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and the early 1960s. You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.”

In the film, Shirley never mentions or even looks at the Green Book — only Tony interacts with it. In fact, the Shirley character in the film seems to have consciously distanced himself from many elements of black culture, while remaining richly aware of the discrimination he will encounter on the trip. But in real life, Shirley had previously traveled throughout the country before embarking on his tour with Tony, and would almost certainly have known all about the Green Book. It simply wouldn’t have been safe not to.

The Green Book was necessary no matter which part of the country you were traveling through

Green Book depicts a range of ways in which the racist attitudes that were dominant in American life in the early and mid-20th century manifested themselves, from snide comments and racial epithets to outright hostility. But it strongly suggests that a guide like the Green Book was only really necessary in the Deep South, where under Jim Crow laws, segregation was not just encouraged, but legally enforced.

The first time Tony consults the Green Book comes after several stops on Shirley’s concert tour, in Ohio and Indiana. Once they cross into Kentucky, the Green Book becomes his guide, and we see it in his hands and on the car seat beside him several times. And a key scene near the end of Green Book suggests that while Shirley was harassed and worse by police in the South, once they returned north of the Mason-Dixon line, he was safe from that experience.

But the reality was different.

Victor Green himself lived in Harlem, a predominantly black neighborhood in New York City, and his first Green Book covered mostly the New York metropolitan area. “It was very much a local guide that listed auto repair shops, but also places in the suburbs, like nightclubs and restaurants,” Liriano told me. “It was highlighting businesses that were friendly and open, and that would be of interest, to the African American motorist.”

But interest in the book was high, and subsequent editions expanded very rapidly. “In two years, they included pretty much the whole country,” Liriano said.

That meant the Green Book didn’t restrict its listings to places like Georgia and Alabama, or other states with explicit Jim Crow laws — it was a lifeline for travelers virtually anywhere in the country.

Esso was one company that used the Green Book to openly court black customers.
(Negro Motorist’s Green Book 1947 via New York Public Library)

In the 1962 edition of the Green Book, published the year in which Green Book is set, you can find listings for restaurants in Wilmington, Delaware; hotels in Billings, Montana; entertainment establishments in Seattle, Washington; and antique stores in New York City, all of which were friendly to black clientele. In many editions, listings spilled over US borders into Mexico and Canada, going as far north as Alaska. And in every city where establishments were listed as friendly to black travelers, there were almost certainly establishments that were unfriendly.

“In states that didn’t necessarily have laws on the books, there was definitely a custom to discriminate,” Liriano said. “The country was pretty much very racist, everywhere you went.”

Certainly, black travelers experienced different conditions in places where segregation was legal and where it wasn’t, and conditions varied across the north as well. In his 1998 memoir Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a Civil Rights pioneer, writes about a 17-hour road trip he took with his Uncle Otis in 1951, packing their lunches and carefully plotting which bathrooms were safe to use along the way from Alabama to upstate New York. “It wasn’t until we got to Ohio that I could feel Uncle Otis relax, and so I relaxed, too,” he writes, later recounting his amazement that his relatives in Buffalo had “white people living next door to them. On both sides.”

But there was no magical line that a black traveler could cross to find safety on the other side. “I think that’s the part that maybe people don’t think about as much,” Liriano told me. “You can blame the South for their laws; but the North was very much also a very segregated place with spaces that were white and spaces that were black, even though it wasn’t by law.”

What the Green Books omitted is as significant as what they contained

Green Book does well in illustrating how Shirley adapts his behavior to be more acceptable to the mostly white crowds who gather to hear him play, even though, as he knows, once he leaves the stage he’s back to being just another “Negro” in their eyes.

His strained, pained smile at the end of every stage set is the dead giveaway. It’s a stark reminder of the long American tradition of respectability politics. And the film is at its best when Tony and Shirley are discovering the limits of those politics, and learning how to challenge the white-defined status quo.

When the pair’s car breaks down across from a field of poor black sharecroppers, the meaning is clear.
Universal Pictures

Some of the need to watch one’s step was reflected in the Green Books, which were intended for black readers but required broader support to remain in production. “Green had to collaborate with a lot of people, including the federal government’s travel bureau,” Liriano says. In interacting with the “Negro Affairs” office in that bureau, as well as other collaborators like gas and oil companies, Green often wound up working with other African-Americans.

But knowing that he needed the support of the government and various companies to keep producing this vital lifeline, Green tended to not rock the boat too much. “He’s not going to criticize or blatantly state things,” Liriano said. “You sort of have to read between the lines in a lot of what he writes in the Green Books.”

That meant not outright criticizing the very laws, customs, and racist attitudes that made 30 years of Green Books necessary. It also appears to have meant not identifying sundown towns.

Still, the sadness inherent in the very existence of the Green Books came through. The end of the introduction to the 1949 edition made this clear. After thanking the United States Travel Bureau’s “Negro Affairs” office for their support, and asking readers to send their feedback and mention the book to establishments that might want to be listed, Green concludes:

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.

“But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year,” he writes.

The 1956 edition of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book.
(Negro Travelers’ Green Book via New York Public Library)

It’s inherently disingenuous to cite the Green Books in the title of a feel-good film

The Green Books were Green’s effort to make the best of a terrible situation, and to offer some kind of freedom to a wide swath of the American population who were considered inferior to white people, not worthy of being treated as equals. In America, barely more than a half century ago, it was legal in some places to be hounded off the road because of your skin color, or to be turned away by a “No Negroes Allowed” sign in a hotel lobby.

In 2010, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told the New York Times that the Green Book “allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was both a defensive and a proactive mechanism.”

So as much as they’re a triumph of ingenuity and hard work, the Green Books represent something else: decades of great pain, and a history which ought to be regarded with shame.

That’s ultimately why Green Book feels wrongheaded to me, no matter how well-intentioned: The movie clearly exhibits Hollywood’s unfortunate tendency to elide reality when making movies about historical racism. It takes the name of an important artifact of history, one whose very existence was a result of prejudice and entrenched white supremacy, and makes it the basis for a broad comedy. It centers its story on a goofy, lovable white man who learns to be less racist after spending time with a black man who, though he’s aloof and unlikeable at first, becomes more “sympathetic” after he’s beaten up a few times.

And curiously, the two never talk about the Green Book itself — its history, its necessity, its very existence. Green Book’s end credits show pictures of the two men and briefly explain what happened to Tony and Shirley after the tour, but never show or even mention the actual Green Books. That’s a bafflingly missed opportunity, given the very name of the film.

It also leans into the always-present danger that comes with movies about racism set in the past. They give audiences — particularly white ones that are eager to consider our era “post-racial” or “color-blind,” or who think black people keep pulling out the “race card” — the ability to leave the theater saying, Whew, the 1960s were a crazy time. Glad we fixed racism!

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Universal Pictures

To be sure, there are a few scenes in which the movie overcomes this setup, to say something real about how expectations based on race, class, and identity can wreak havoc on a person’s soul. And at its best, Green Book may raise interest in the actual Green Books among viewers, particularly white audiences who’ve never heard of them before.

But borrowing the name of such a fraught piece of history and making a feel-good comedy about it, then failing to do that piece of history justice, is at best a misstep. At worst, it’s yet another example of Hollywood’s obliviousness and its willingness to feed into its audience’s self-satisfaction. As a piece of conventional Hollywood cinema, Green Book has plenty to recommend it. But as a film named for Victor Green’s books, it’s got a lot to answer for.

Green Book opens in limited theaters on November 16 and wide on November 21.

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