Green Book is a 2018 American biographical drama that brings to life the racism and poverty of America in the 1960s through a narrative of friendship and adventure. The film, though surprisingly successful in the box office, was even more so on the awards circuit. It won three Oscars in 2019 for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor, in addition to numerous award nominations. Interestingly, the film won the 2019 AARP Award for Best Movie for Grownups. However, it faced major criticism on the same scale following its release. Its fairy-tale like depiction of racism and homophobia was argued as taking place within a narrative written for a white audience.
Set in 1962, the film is inspired by Don Shirley, an African-American jazz pianist, and Italian-American bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, who served as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard. The film, written by Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Vallelonga’s son, Nick Vallelonga was based on interviews with Vallelonga’s father and Shirley, as well as letters Tony wrote to his wife. Although it might initially be thought that these sources would be helpful in giving an accurate picture of the events of the tour, the primary sources were only really used as reference of the relationship between the two characters and some of the major events that took place on the tour. Thus, failing to include much information about how racism was affecting America, this becomes a clear missing theme throughout the film.
The film begins in New York with Tony searching for new employment. He is invited to be Don’s driver for an eight-week tour through the Midwest and the Deep South. When given the job, Don gives Tony a copy of the Green Book – a guide for African-American travellers to find motels, restaurants, and filling stations that would serve them in the South. The white Italian-American gets a taste of the Black motorist’s experience.
However, one of the main criticisms of the film was the use of the Green Book within the narrative. Although it is the title of the film, the Green Book and its importance as a source of racial history is hardly discussed in the film. Early on, Tony briefly explains its purpose to his wife, ‘to provide Black travellers with information about “safe” places to stay and to eat while they travel’. However, after this it is never referred to by name, even when the pair face extreme racism later in the trip. In fact, critics have pointed out that Black people don’t even touch the book, let alone talk about its importance in their lives.
The film has also been heavily criticized because of its fairy tale-like approach to a story concerning such a serious topic; it echoes the knights’ quest, and the protagonists share the qualities of the knights errant, individuals who leave their normal surroundings to right wrongs and assert their ideals in order to test their courage and integrity. Shirley faces constant racism throughout the film, ranging from the micro-aggression of being ignored to the extreme violence of beatings. However, whenever Shirley is faced with racism, Vallelonga seems to come to his rescue. We know no real harm will come to him with Vallelonga by his side. This not only undermines Vallelonga’s role in looking after himself but seems to perpetuate the idea that Black people cannot fight against racism, without a ‘white-knight’. This idea is ironic even in the film. One of its central themes is how unusual it is for Black and white people to be friends; therefore, to set the precedent that white people somehow help to ‘save’ Black people from racism seems inaccurate. This illustrates that the film is much more about friendship than civil rights, meaning that many of the real experiences that black people faced are overlooked to enhance the narrative.
Music, however, is used successfully in the film as a vehicle to demonstrate the civil rights experience. It is a constant theme, as Shirley is a classical pianist and music is played throughout their travels on the car radio. There is one pivotal scene in which music is used as a device to talk about civil rights. The two protagonists are driving to a venue and Vallelonga questions why Shirley does not play the type of music played by Black people on the radio. Shirley states that while Black music is becoming popular, Black people are still seen as different. He highlights this by stating Vallelonga did not just call them musicians but instead ‘black musicians’ hence, he does not want to play jazz piano. Here, Shirley does not want to conform to the Black stereotype but instead wants to be respected for his talent in the same way a white man would be. This is one of the moments of the film in which the everyday experience of Black people is most directly mentioned. Although the film does illustrate aggressive forms of racism, it has been argued that it is less successful in showing the social climate of 1960s America. Rather, by using music the social climate is successfully shown in this scene.
Although Green Book is a pleasant story of friendship illustrated through beautiful cinematography, a beautiful soundtrack, and scenes of very engaging dialogue, it largely misses the mark in documenting the severity of racism and homophobia in the southern states of 1960s America. The film romanticizes an experience that for many people was anything but. This film also illustrates the dangers of depicting important historical topics in films, as important historic details are often sacrificed for a better plot.
Written by Sophia Aiello
Farrelly, Peter. The Green Book. Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 2018.