About a month ago, I saw Green Book in theaters. When I left the theater, I absolutely gushed to my sister about how much I had loved the movie. It’s a touching film that traces the relationship between a white man and a black man who are travelling together through the deep South. The character development of the two men, as well as the development of their relationship, is amazing to watch. Especially because the movie is set in a time of segregation and deep racism, the unlikely success of their relationship is touching. Furthermore, the acting throughout the movie is stellar, and I couldn’t imagine any other men representing the historical figures portrayed in the movie.
Because I loved this movie so much, I was surprised when I saw that many people on social media were angry that Green Book won best picture at the Oscars this year. Personally, I was happy that a movie about historical racism had won. The day after the Oscars, I scrolled through Twitter, curious about why people were upset. When this didn’t give me answers, I turned to Google and searched, “Why is Green Book problematic?”
What I found made sense to me almost immediately. Before I start to critique this movie, I want to acknowledge that my perspective on this issue may not be as valid as that of a Black person. I recognize that I am White and speaking about a sensitive cultural issue that doesn’t pertain to my own race.
Nevertheless, I want to examine and explain some of the problematic aspects of this film. The first issue is the title: Green Book. The Negro Motorist Green Book, published from 1937 until 1966, was an informative book for Black people travelling across the country. In Green Bookthe movie, white protagonist Tony uses this book to find hotels and restaurants where his black client, Don, can safely go to while on his piano tour in the South. Although the book is a significant part of the movie, neither Tony nor Don ever mentions it. This negligence is concerning because of the importance the book had during its time. Without the book, travelling across the country as a Black individual would be nearly impossible and might result in abuse or even death at the time that the movie takes place. Therefore, the title Green Bookis problematic because the actual Green Book isn’t sufficiently explained throughout the movie.
The title of this movie is also misleading because it might promot viewers to assume that this movie is a work of historical non-fiction when it simply is not. The focus of the movie is not the racism that Don faces or the importance of The Negro Motorist Green Book, but rather the unexpected friendship formed between the Black and White main characters. If the movie had a different title, viewers would not be expecting a historical movie about the actual Green Book. Then, perhaps, the controversy around this movie would be less intense.
After the accuracy of the movie’s title is questioned, other aspects of the movie are put into question as well, such as the accuracy of the portrayal of the main characters and their relationship. Maurice Shirley, the only brother of Don in real life, spoke to Shadow and Act, a website dedicated to reporting Black talent within the entertainment industry, about the reality of Don and Tony’s relationship. Maurice stated quite plainly, “He fired Tony, which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time…When you hear that Tony had been with him for 18 months, I can assure you, no chauffeur lasted with my brother for 18 months” (Shadow and Act). So, what is the truth? Is the movie correct in asserting that Tony and Don stayed lifelong friends after their journey through the South? Or, is Maurice correct in claiming that their relationship ended with Don firing Vinny like so many of his other chauffeurs? Although these possibilities are complete opposites, both are plausible and up for interpretation.
Additionally, this movie fails to recognize the privilege that Don had, even while in the South. Although he was absolutely a Black man in the deep South who experienced racism, Don was a world-renowned pianist. Therefore, he was treated superiorly compared to the majority of Black people at this time, and especially compared to those other Black people in the deep South. Green Bookdoesn’t acknowledge the extreme racism that most Black people in the deep South faced. Rather, it glazes over the very real horrors that occurred after the Civil War. It is therefore a somewhat inaccurate representation of what was happening at the time. This leads to the question, should it be required of a movie to provide complete and accurate historical information?
If you are interested in learning more about the real Green Book, definitely check out Yoruba Richen’s new documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom. This is a comprehensive and fascinating documentary that fills in the historical gaps that are seen in the film.