Green Book is a buddy, comedy-drama tackling Hollywood’s favourite issues of race, sexuality and class based on the true stories of Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen, and Dr. Don Shirley, played by the alluring Mahershala Ali. So why has this film, that is supposed to promote harmony and acceptance, caused such an extreme divide?
Lip is a stuck-in-his-ways, Italian, working-class racist who disposes of drink glasses that have been used by African-Americans. He is employed to drive Shirley, an elegant, educated and isolated African-American concert pianist. Shirley has set his sights, for the sake of social progression, on playing concerts in the Midwest and South, more particularly, in cities bereft of culture and music and overflowing with racism.
Critics have accused Green Book of being racially tone-deaf by white-washing racism and endorsing the “White Saviour” character in Lip. The basis of this being that Lip “swoops in” to save Shirley from violence and discrimination in white-only establishments, in addition to enlightening him about unfamiliar food and music and inviting him to join his family for Christmas.
Lip does wear the “White Saviour” badge loudly and proudly, but so does Shirley. Shirley’s “Black Saviour” role should not be disregarded. Lip’s literacy improves with Shirley’s help in drafting love letters to his wife. Furthermore, Lip is exposed to classical music and culture and, most importantly, he is saved from his own racism as he gains compassion, awareness and empathy for African-Americans through his friendship with Shirley.
The film does not confront racism by shocking the audience with graphic images of violence and hostility, rather, it portrays the racial nuances and subtle disentitlements suffered by African-Americans. Given that Shirley is an affluent and valued member of society, it is not unexpected for his encounters of racism to differ from the “usual” horrendous instances endured by many black people in the 1960s.
The undeniable feat of Green Book is its representation of individuals who suffer from a “spoiled identity”. Shirley speaks to this in saying,“so, if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, what am I?”. In contrast, Lip’s cultural Italian identity is unambiguous, from his language and vernacular, to his hearty appetite, to his large, fast-talking family. The unique hardships of cultural uncertainty and alienation experienced by Shirley are extremely difficult for audiences to understand, which is why the film has collected wavering responses.
The fresh perspective of Shirley is indicative of the progress Hollywood is making, in that, stories beyond egregious acts of racial violence are being told. It is a step forward for diverse filmmaking, not a step back. This recognition must be acknowledged and valued so that filmmakers and production companies aren’t deterred from continuing to make similar films.
Upcoming films featuring African-American leads should be allowed to divert from plots ingrained in racism and shift towards individual stories, even if this results in varying degrees, if any, of adversity. In watching diverse films, audiences must learn to consider and understand the perspective, context and characters themselves; not every film featuring minorities will have a political or social agenda.
The upcoming film The Best of Enemies, based on a true story, is about black civil right activist Ann Atwater, played by Taraji P. Henson, and local Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell. The two are in battle over the desegregation of schools in North Carolina. Before its release, the film was under attack for featuring another “White Saviour”. Although this film is inherently political, audiences must also consider the characters for who they are and not just “another black or white trope” crafted to serve a political agenda, which is something critics failed to do after watching Green Book.
Accompanying the storyline of Green Book is the contagious chemistry between the actors; comedic, wholesome undertones; and a splendid earthy and pastel colour palette. Green Book is an achievement for films championing diversity as it boasts humanity and warmth and celebrates interracial friends