History Repeats Itself with GREEN BOOK Win

My twin sister and I love to take spontaneous late- night movie trips to the Cinemark at Hampshire Mall. It doesn’t matter what's playing, sometimes we just go for the popcorn. I always feel restless in my dorm room and if I’m there for too long I start to resent everything in it, from my paper lanterns to the white walls to the laundry bags propped up in the corner. It doesn’t matter what type of essential oil I use in my diffuser or the amount of lofi hip hop I play in the background, sometimes it feels stifling. The Hampshire mall serves as this beacon of dying mall culture with its outdated music and empty arcades, there is something about the $1 beer signs and unsightly pictures of spaghetti outside the Arizona Pizza that feels almost lynchian. Every time I go I wonder “what does Arizona have to do with pizza?”  This past semester I saw Yorgos lanthimos’ The Favorite four times. You might judge me and say “what a waste of money”  but I’d much rather spend $8 with my student discount on a great movie than a couple of overhyped cocktails downtown.

Anyways, every time I went I would be affronted with the same ads over and over again. One of the trailers that I memorized was for Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. My sister and I would turn to each other and make faces in disgust. The movie was so predictable, it reeked of Oscar bait. It was a story we have all seen before and it was just as politically and socially subversive as a movie from the early 2000s… not very. On February 24th the Oscars were held without a host. I was working on a Latin assignment and checking updates on Twitter to see who would win. (I personally was rooting for the underrated Marielle Heller film Can You Ever Forgive Me starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant in the roles of a lifetime.) You cannot begin to imagine the level of outrage I felt when Green Book won Best Picture. My level of outrage was clearly eclipsed by that of Blackklansman director Spike Lee. Andrew Dalton, reporter for Associated Press tweeted:

“Spike Lee was visibly angry when “Green Book” was announced as the winner of best picture at the Oscars, waving his arms in disgust and appearing to try and storm out of the Theatre before he was stopped. He returned to his seat when the speeches were over.”  

Many on Twitter were saying that Spike Lee was “pulling a kanye” as he was seen ranting to Get Out director (and Blackklansman producer) Jordan Peele, all the while turning his back to the stage. Many commentators seemed unaware of the historical context of Spike Lee’s reaction. As Lee himself put it “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.” This remark alludes to the 1990 Driving Miss Daisy Best Picture win. The 1989 film directed by Bruce Beresford centers around a white woman played by Jessica Tandy who develops an unlikely friendship with her black chauffeur played by Morgan Freeman. Directed and written by white men, the film looks at race through a sugar- coated white lens that is very easy for white audiences to swallow. The film, like many before and after it, employs a person of color for the character development of a white character. (Gran Torino anyone?) The film pales in comparison to Spike Lee’s acclaimed and culturally- significant film Do The Right Thing released in the same year. Do The Right Thing concerns the growing racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Directed and written by Spike Lee, the film is not told through a white lens and attacks racial issues with more honesty and complexity. I remember when I was a kid and my dad showed it to me for the first time, it was such an eye-opening experience. I’ve watched it many times since. The same cannot be said for Driving Miss Daisy which is frankly forgettable. Do The Right Thing didn’t even receive a nomination that year. I imagine the academy preferred the less- combative Driving Miss Daisy which spoke less to the contemporary moment and more to a “racism only exists in the Southern past” ideology.

Fast forward to 2019 and history repeats itself. A blaring commonality between Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book is that both films are directed and written by white men. Driving Miss Daisy was directed by Bruce Beresford and written by Alfred Uhry. Green Book’s writer-director Peter Farrelly is currently under fire for the #MeToo movement due to flashing and other weird sexual pranks, and writer Nick Vallelonga has been accused of islamophobia. Despite this controversy, these stories, told from a white perspective, are privileged over that of Black Panther and Blackklansman. If one compares the critical response to both Green Book (79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and Blackklansman (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) it becomes clear that Lee was robbed. Blackklansman confronts white supremacy head on, whereas Green Book is more concerned with alleviating white guilt. Another commonality between Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book is that they focus on racism in the past without confronting the racism of today. Blackklansman ends with footage from the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville Virginia and Trump’s subsequent statements regarding the rally. This explicit moment of interaction with the present, followed by a shot of an American flag upside down (fading into black and white), is indisputably defiant. The film is concerned with contemporary racism and is very upfront with its relevant political message. Lee’s film does not shy away from our volatile political and social landscape. Green Book on the other hand, pushes racism into the past and does not address the world we live in today. In fact, it doesn’t even address the world of yesterday since Dr. Don Shirley’s family has called the film highly inaccurate. James Berardinelli of ReelViews called Green Book “effective and affecting while being careful to avoid overdosing its audience on material that some might deem too shocking or upsetting.” I believe that this quote reveals the major problem with the film. If your discourse isn’t upsetting then it's not breaking any new ground. We are supposed to be upset about racism!

Green Book is not an entirely bad film. There is some value in making American audiences aware of under-discussed parts of our history. Many Americans like myself have never heard of the actual “Green Book” which existed from 1935- 1965. I believe I would have been more incensed if Vice won. However, I can’t help but align myself with Spike Lee’s outrage at this win. The win speaks to the bigger issue of white voices drowning out black voices. Disregarding the fact that the film is just another “safe” white savior narrative, it is simply a mediocre movie.

“Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” - Malcolm X

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