Green Book is a fine film with great performances by Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen and Linda Cardellini. But a “feel-good” film about race, told from a white perspective, isn’t what America needs right now.
“Every time someone’s driving somebody, I lose!” It was a pointed observation made by Spike Lee backstage at last night’s Academy Awards. He was talking about the Best Picture winner, Green Book, which beat out his film BlacKkKlansman. It also referenced Driving Miss Daisy, a film about a black chauffeur who worked for an old white woman, which cleaned up at the 62nd Annual Academy Awards back in 1990. That was the year that Lee’s incendiary and groundbreaking Do The Right Thing received two nominations, winning neither.
(It is worth mentioning that BlacKkKlansman did win Best Adapted Screenplay.)
There’s been a lot of op-eds written about the problematic issues around Green Book, including the fact that the family of Mahershala Ali’s character (concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley) wasn’t consulted on the film. Unsurprisingly, his family has taken some issue with how Shirley was portrayed, with his brother calling the film a “symphony of lies.” The script was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga (who was played by Mortensen); he was telling the story from his father’s perspective. Still, the idea of three white guys (Nick Vallelonga, director Peter Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie) writing a story that leans on the “white savior” trope rubs many the wrong way, and it’s easy to understand why. Vallelonga’s recently resurfaced anti-Muslim tweets and comments by Mortensen haven’t helped matters.
But even divorced from that context, the film seems to absolve America in a way that’s way too cut-and-dried. Green Book takes place fifty years ago: the cars are vintage; Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin are on the radio; Bobby Rydell is a hot new artist. More pointedly, in the deep south, a clothing store won’t allow Dr. Shirley to try on a suit. A house where he’s booked to play a concert won’t allow him to use their bathroom. A restaurant where he’s booked won’t allow him to eat in the main dining room.
So, yes: many things have changed for the better in the subsequent decades. But Green Book makes no connection from that era to the present day. For someone who has never actually experienced prejudice, the film seems to give you license to walk out of the theater saying, “Racism: wow, that was terrible. Glad we’re beyond that!”
Of course, Spike Lee would never let us off that easily, and nor should he. Set in the 1970s, Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on the story of John Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American police detective who, by sounding “white,” infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan via phone conversations. When it came time to meet them face to face, the department sent a white detective – who happened to be Jewish (Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver) – to infiltrate in person. It’s an amazing story. And like Green Book, it takes place so long ago that it seems like ancient history – except for the fact that David Duke, who was then the KKK’s Grand Wizard, is still a relevant force to white nationalists today. And if that wasn’t enough to connect the film to 2019, BlacKkKlansman ends with a horrifying segment to remind us just how much the 2010s have in common with the 1970s. It’s a lot less warm and fuzzy than what Green Book offers, and there’s no doubt that it’s a lot less comfortable to those who don’t want to recognize the persistent existence of racism.
But that persistent existence is a truth that America won’t be able to get past, until it stares it in the face. Thankfully, artists like Spike Lee shine a light on that truth (for a more modern day look at race in America, try Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s excellent and underrated Blindspotting). The question is, how many people are willing to look at something that they’d clearly rather not see. Green Book shows that we have come remarkably far, but BlacKkKlansman reminds us that there’s still a long way to go.