The Green Book – Jack Miles
May 11, 2020 –
Black history month, founded by Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves occurs every February in order to honor the brave African Americans who fought for their freedom in the midst of such oppression, as well as recognize the contrite dichotomy and dualism that once existed in our nation. African Americans suffered in a society that was extremely segregated and neglected and left them with minimal opportunity and future. Black history month is dedicated to portraying the systemic racism that African Americans faced as well as celebrating how people have come together to combat it. Through the film Green Book We are given an account of the two different Americas, through the lives of the African American pianist Don Shirley and his Italian American bodyguard and driver Frank Vallelonga otherwise known as Tony, we are shown how systemic racism in the 1960s affected the lives of African Americans.
I had the opportunity to watch Green Book which released November 21, 2018, and is set in 1962. The three time Oscar winning film, directed by Peter Farrelly transverses the differing experiences and challenges the two faced in their trek through the deep south and how they worked together to both overcome racial roadblocks as well as how they ultimately overcame their differences and became friends. Through their experiences and their introduction to the Green Book, a driving manual for African Americans in the south, as Michael Ra-Shon Hall depicts it in his Article, The Negro Traveller’s guide to a Jim Crow South, “In this way The Green Book provided African-American travellers a tool with which to subvert and avoid racial discrimination in twentieth-century American leisure travel, Jim Crow prejudice being very much a postcolonial and postbellum legacy of modern enslavement in the Americas.” Hall later goes on to make the point how such Jim Crow policies prejudices are still prevalent today through mass incarceration of the African American population. African American pianist Don Shirley is forced to take in the extreme racism in the south and its segregational Jim Crow laws for the first time, while driver Frank Vallelonga is required to see first hand such racism, ultimately causing conviction for equality in his own heart. The film, in comical fashion displays how the two overcome their distinct differences in order to take on the challenge of racism together.
Seeing how two men, from completely different backgrounds and races, experience racism and work together to combat it is the main theme of Green Book and much of the civil rights movement as well. Throughout the film the character Dr. Donald Shirley little by little entails what it is like to live in a society of such racial inequality. At one point while explaining the reality that he lived in, Dr. Shirley goes on to say, “I live in a castle, Tony! Alone. And Rich white people pay me to play piano for them because it makes them feel cultured. But as soon as I step off that stage, I go back to being just another nigger to them. Because that is their true culture. And I suffer that slight alone, because I’m not accepted by my own people because I’m not like them.” In Dr. Shirley’s life we not only see how it must have felt to be used and degraded by racist whites, but also the loneliness an African American artist might have felt who didn’t have the backing and support of the black community. Through Dr. Shirley opening up to Tony we can see how he lived stuck between the dichotomy of two societies, stuck between being a performer in the flourishing white society, and being excluded from “The Other America” as Martin Luther King Jr. puts it. The second class society of the black community.
On March 10th 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech “The Other America.” King Jr. goes on to compare what he calls the, “Two Americas.” “Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one.” King then addresses the mass substandard housing conditions that many African Americans lived in, as well as the insufficient school systems and unemployment that plagued the black community. Just as seen through the film Green Book we are shown two Americas, one that lives in a world of opportunity and freedom, and one that lives in a world of oppression and lack of resources.
For many white Americans the reality of such racism had already become a societal norm. In an article in The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham compares the racial unrest of the 1960s to today’s world. Ingraham points out that social divides were much deeper then, “The protests were much larger, communication between different cultures was harder, and violence against blacks was accepted as necessary.” The first hand account of sources who are white Americans who grew up in that era reveals that white America conceived of African Americans as “agitators” or “instigators.” They believed they were being dealt with accordingly. The article states that they felt the ‘troublemakers’ needed to be dealt with so the ‘good and decent people’ could go about their lives in their side of town.” Ingraham depicts how many whites felt that division was the only way for peace, the only just way for people to live was in a society of “Two Americas” that was depicted in the Green Book.
Our nation has come so far in recent history to break the divide between black and white. Our cities have worked, and continue to work towards having one united city rather than cities divided because of the racism and division that still exists in our nation. From the foundation of Black History Month we have come to develop present day organizations such as #BlackLivesMatter so that we can continue to battle against structural oppression. Through the characters Dr. Donald Shirley and Frank Vallelonga, Green Book helps to illuminate how difficult it can be to understand the challenges that racism in a society brings when you aren’t a minority. The evolution of Frank Vallelonga throughout the film represents the extent to which society can shift from neglecting systemic and social racism, to standing up and fighting for equality for all.
Farrelly, Peter, et al. Green Book. Universal Pictures, 2018.
Hall, Michael Ra-Shon. “The Negro Traveller’s Guide to a Jim Crow South: Negotiating Racialized Landscapes during a Dark Period in United States Cultural History, 1936–1967.” Postcolonial Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, 2014, pp. 307–319., doi:10.1080/13688790.2014.987898.
Ingraham, Christopher. “How the Unrest of the 1960s Compares to Today, According to the People Who Lived through It.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 July 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/12/reddit-remembers-the-1960s-we-probably-dont-have-to-kill-all-of-them-just-the-agitators/.
King, Martin Luther, et al. 10 Mar. 1968, www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf.