“Green Book” and The Deep South

Green Book is an award-winning film, it was nominated for five awards, winning three for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. The film was very well received and the success it had was not expected when it was under creation. The film is based on a true story and it focuses on an odd friendship between Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American, and Dr. Don Shirley, a famous black-American musician. The film reveals significant experiences African-American had lived previously throughout times.

Although the film was well received and recognized among the general public and cinematic critics, there are some concerns regarding the film’s accuracy on what was real or just fictional. For example, viewers and critics have referred to it as a “white savior film” because its focus relies too heavily on the relationship between the main characters – a Black man, Doctor Don Shirley, and his white driver and gives very little importance to the racism of that time. The name of the film stems from a book, The Negro Motorist Green Book, it was first published in 1936 to assist black motorists in finding safe areas for their passage during the violent period of Jim Crow, as Micheal Ra-Shon Hall puts it “The Green Book aided African-American travellers during the Jim Crow era in US cultural history, defined by a legal regime that fostered racial intimidation and physical violence towards African-Americans”, The Negro traveller’s guide to a Jim Crow South: negotiation racialized landscapes during a dark period in United States Cultural History, 1936-1967, Postcolonial Studies, 17, 307-319. It was an important document for black travelers and was a guide to where they could or could not travel. Up until 1966, it was published annually with more than 2 million copies sold over the years it was available. The content of this book would vary from beauty shops, sanatoriums, drug stores, haberdashers, liquor stores, night clubs, and gas stations where black people were welcomed. Such a document was vital for the two travelers, Shirley and Tony, but in the movie, only Tony manages the book to find places to rest, and some critics assert that there were many higher-end hotels they could have stayed in and would accommodate the refined taste of the musician. This brings us to an incident during their journey. They got pulled over by the police during a rainy night and in a “sundown town” in Mississippi. A sundown town is all-white municipalities or neighborhoods that practiced a form of segregation, by having a combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, or violence against non-whites. During this encounter, Tony trying not to create problems said, “We’re not from around here” and after some short sentences were exchanged the police officer, confused asked, “No you ain’t. So I’m gonna ask you again… what the hell you doin’ out here? And why you driving him? He can’t be out here at night. This is a sundown town.” To give some context, the officer first asked Tony why they were in that area and why was a white man driving a black man, and Tony said he was his boss. The officer couldn’t pronounce Tony’s last name, Vallelonge so Tony explained it was Italian to which the officer simply responded “Oh I see. That’s why you are driving him around. You’re half a nigger yourself.”. Such behavior is a good understanding of how white society viewed other ethnicities, and the word used has a very deep significance in black history and is most offensive. The criticism was that sundown towns were rare in Mississippi and more common in northern and western regions, “For example, Mississippi has no more than six. Most sundown towns are in western and eastern areas of the United States. Illinois has over 400 sundown towns.” Book review Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen. One difference highlighted by the critics after contacting Shirley’s family was that their trip only took around two months while on the film it took several months – in the end, the pair rushed to come home for Christmas Eve. Also, there are some uncertainties around the friendship between the two main characters. Don Shirley said during an interview both were close friends after the tour but according to his brother, Don never mentioned anything about their close relationship. He shared that it was all just an employee-employer relationship. Despite the nature of the relationship was to first guarantee the safety of Dr. Shirley, meaning the relationship was merely professional.

The movie although being criticized for putting the racism felt by Dr. Shirley in a politely and lightly manner the reality was many people experienced similarities to what the Doctor went through and those matters were not explained properly in the film, these vital concepts are only understood by someone that lived through something similar or has a notion of such situations, others may look at it and do not see any issues betrayed in the scenes. One good example was when Tony looked at a suit presented on a show window asked to try it on, the seller was more than welcome to give the suit, but as soon as he understood the suit was for Dr. Shirley to try he stopped him by saying he was not allowed to try on the suit but if he purchased it first they “would be happy to tailor it to your needs.” Despite all of this, two scenes show how well this duo was unwelcomed and odd for people of the south the first was the moment when the car broke down in front of a field with black people working under the sun and Tony had to fix the engine problem, the workers were so perplexed to see another black dressed in a suit while a white person was fixing the car and opening the car door they just stopped working and stared. This represented how unlikely such an event was. It was as if the workers were only dreaming or their eyes were fooling them. The second was during a performance at a plantation house. Dr. Shirley had to excuse himself for a moment to look for “the commode” and was stopped by the house owner to not use the one inside but rather another one outside. This one was a rather small wooden toilet used by enslaved people owned by the homeowner, this “help” was politely declined by Doctor Shirley and he threatened to use the facilities in the motel but it would take a long time to drive both ways. Surprisingly his response was “we don’t mind waiting.” Dr. Shirley experience thought the south was his own making, he could have stayed in New York receiving the usual payload for his work but he requested to do gigs in the South for a third of the value to send a message for the white south, at the time was common for a black artist to struggle compared to a white artist, as the book Freedom on My Mind describes on Chapter 11 “Although future Hall of Famers such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were revered for their skills in black America, where regional leagues were a major source of entertainment, black ballplayers wanted a chance to compete with white players and earn similar salaries.” (page 460).

Once again, in 1962 when the film takes place the dominant society still deeply believed in a difference between black-American and white-American, especially in the south, and those beliefs can easily be seen in the film Green Book among others. Such beliefs were so rooted in the culture in these communities and this has its roots in black enslavement. The culture was to enslave black people and it stayed that way for more than 200 years. Change is difficult but we could see Dr. Don Shirley attempts to change something in the mindset of the white south by accepting gigs and insisting on being treated with dignity. The past affects the present and the future, so we need to understand the past to embrace the present and change the future for a better one. This is relevant to understand the history of black Americans.

 

Bibliography

https://time.com/5527806/green-book-movie-controversy/

https://www.politifact.com/article/2019/feb/07/green-book-oscars-fact-check-true/

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/12/truth-about-green-book-viggo-mortensen-mahershala-ali

https://sci-hub.tw/10.1080/13688790.2014.987898

Hall, M. R.-S. (2014). 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, 17(3), 307–319.

Freedom on My Mind, Deborah Gray White; Mia Bay; Waldo E. Martin, Jr.

https://search.proquest.com/openview/4c0b1a9c5b1c46c13284a5851d7c28ea/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=46710Book review Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen

Green book, Peter Farrelly-Peter Farrelly-Peter Farrelly-Jim Burke-Charles Wessler-Brian Currie-Brian Currie-Nick Vallelonga-Nick Vallelonga – Universal Pictures – 2018

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