“Green Book”/ Black History in Film – Sarah Burch

Witnessing the hardships and experiences that African-Americans have faced throughout the history of the United States is an important factor to understanding and appreciating African-American culture. By looking at historical moments from various eras, we can reveal where institutionalized racism occurred and how the African-American community coped and combatted what they encountered. Reflecting on these events sheds light on such impactful events that shaped the African-American culture. One way to witness these historical accounts is through film. For my project, I watched Green Book, a film directed by Peter Farrelly, which allowed me to better understand the oppressive, racially biased society African-Americans in the early 60s faced. 

Green Book is a film set in the early 60s and covers the journey of Tony Lip, an Italian-American from the Bronx, and a remarkable African-American pianist, Dr. Don Shirely. After Shirely hires Lip to drive and protect him during his two month concert tour in the deep south, the unlikely pair gradually learn from one another and form an impactful relationship that contrasts what was typically accepted at the time. Lip begins the film expressing extremely racist ideals, practiced by most during this era. When his more accepting wife hires African-American workers to do a home repair, Lip goes so far as to throw away glasses that the men had used, signifying the disgust he held for people of color. However, after witnessing the unjust racism and discrimination faced by Shirely throughout his tour, Lip eventually comes around to love having Shirley in his life and ultimately defends his rights when others discriminate against him simply for being black. Lip even stands up for Shirley against his own family’s remarks and welcomes him into his home for Christmas dinner. This film exposes the hardships African-Americans faced during the 1960s and displays the importance of education in order to combat racism. Lip originally would have never treated a black individual with respect, but after learning from Shirley and exposing himself to new circumstances he had never experienced, he was able to alter his behavior to rid himself of the racist ideals he once expressed. 

Uncovering the societal and institutionalized norm of racism and disrimination, Green Book provides a meaningful example of an African-American’s hardships in a society that is unaccepting of them and their culture. It reveals the truths behind the music industry at the time and the issues faced by musicians as well as the black community as a whole. As a world renowned, highly sophisticated pianist Dr. Don Shirely expresses that he is only praised and loved while performing, but once he exits the stage he is no longer seen as a person and is once again discriminated against. As a musician, he faced the issue of having to perform for a crowd of white people that would moments later treat him with disrespect and hatred exemplifying society’s view on him as merely a commodity. The film also displayed the hardships African-Americans would face while traveling and going about their days in various towns during Jim Crow. The title itself refers to “The Negro Motorist Green Book” which was a guide for African-American travelers across the country, stating which establishments they were permitted to enter. This book reveals the attitudes those in the white south held toward African-Americans and the difficulties they would face while traveling during this period. “These types of travel guides were necessary during the Jim Crow era because African Americans were subject to acts of discrimination and occasional intimidation as many businesses refused to accept them as customers,”(Tunnel). Victor Green, the author of this traveler’s guide, hoped for the day that the book would no longer be needed and knew that would only occur once equality was reached. This would take long after the book was published to happen, despite Green’s hopes. 

This film unveils issues learned about during our lectures regarding racial segregation and the Jim Crow laws put into place in the early 1900s. After viewing Shirley get denied from trying on a suit, not being able to eat at a restaurant in a venue he was set to perform at, having to stay at run down hotels, and many more unjust instances, the lasting impacts of the Jim Crow laws were evident. Even sixty years after these laws were formed, where “separate but equal” establishments arose to segregate African-Americans from white people, the black community remained heavily discriminated against. As we discussed in class and as shown during Green Book, these laws showed that the establishments were separate, but far from equal. The unjust living conditions and treatment the black community experienced during this era exemplifies another element of institutionalized racism set into place during the formative years of this country. Ongoing racial inequalities set into laws that separated the people of our country during its formative years have proved to have lasting impacts that we should recognize and work to change. 

Overall, Green Book exposes the hostile and imbalanced relationships often formed between white and black people during this time, however, it provides an instance where this normalized behavior gets broken. The film shows a shift where strides for increased progress regarding civil rights are made. The film exposes a time period right before the civil rights movement begins in full force, such a prevalent moment in black history. Green Book provides a powerful depiction of racism toward even the most elite, talented African-Americans and the deeply institutionalized discrimination that was extremely difficult to overcome. The film provides a window into the past and allows for a better understanding of African-American history and culture as a whole. By understanding the deep rooted racism and the many key achievements and burdens that occurred throughout black history in America, a more full appreciation for African-American culture can be achieved and movement can be made toward equality.

Farrelly, Peter, et al. Green Book. Universal Pictures, 2018.

Tunnell, Harry. “The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-1964).” Welcome to Blackpast •, 17 Sept. 2019, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/negro-motorist-green-book-1936-1964/.


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