'Green Book' Somehow Manages To Make A Uniquely Black Story All About The White Guy – And The Results Are Ridiculous

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Green Book whitewashes a black story into oblivion.)

Someone on Twitter asked me the other day, "How do you whitewash the Green Books?" It's a valid question, given how the new film Green Book sidelines its eponymous subject in favor of its racist white male character (Viggo Mortensen), a professional driver who heads down south from New York City during Jim Crow on tour with a famed black classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) and is effectively cured of his bigotry. As a result, the historical Green Books (or The Negro Motorist Green Books, as they're officially titled), an invaluable series used by black people to protect themselves from the horrors of racism while traveling, become a mere prop in what's initially presented as its own story.

It's nothing new. We've seen Hollywood films whitewash black experiences throughout history for the purpose of sanitizing racism and showing white people in a more favorable light (I'll never forget The Help, as much as I'd like to). But there is something particularly bothersome about the way Green Book uses its titular material—guides that were lifesavers for the people of its time because they indicated which venues and cities were safe for black travel (and which weren't)—to tell a whole other story that presents its problematic white character, Tony Lip (Mortensen), as the one who schools Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) about black culture and warns him about the dangers of segregated locales. As a result, Don, who should be the hero of his own story, is reduced to an aloof black genius who appears to slip into respectability politics as a way to confront racism and is nevertheless victimized.

This strange distortion of perspective, though based on the true story of the real Tony's road trip with Dr. Shirley, exacerbates many areas of the film. First and foremost, the only glimpses we get of the Green Book is in Tony's hands in the beginning of the film as he receives it with a vague understanding of its importance while on his excursion. The next time we really see it again is when it's tossed in the passenger seat of the car, usually beneath Tony's half-eaten hoagie (the movie too often relies on the contrast between Tony's sloppiness and unrefined attitude and Dr. Shirley's perpetually dignified state as an unnecessary comedic device). We rarely, if ever, see Dr. Shirley hold or even reference the book.

So right away, a seminal item in black history is trivialized and hijacked by a white man who has zero reverence for it, and because of that, the audience is given no reason to have any either. Add to that is the fact that Tony's voice is the more prominent one between the two (seriously, he is constantly talking), often sharing his bad takes on black music and food since he's supposedly a better expert on blackness than Dr. Shirley because he listens to Little Richard and eats fried chicken with his bare hands and the latter does not. It's impossible to reconcile the terrible irony that this racist white man tries to enlighten a black man about his culture using silly stereotypes, as he carelessly totes around the Green Book. This is utterly ridiculous.

green book director interview

Then there is the fact that Peter Farrelly (of There's Something about Mary fame) directed this movie and co-wrote it with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (the real-life Tony's son)—all white men. This makes the film all the more oppressively white and naturally favoring Tony's perspective because it might be the experience they are closest to (certainly for Vallelonga, I'd imagine). With this directing/writing team, Tony becomes a three-dimensional character with a redemptive ending while Dr. Shirley, even with Ali's heartfelt performance, is a far more distant character whose aversion against stereotypes and being pigeonholed comes off more incongruous than what it should be—an act of resistance. That fact seems to escape Farrelly and co. I, being a black person, understood this instantly only because of the way Ali presented it. It is his devastating performance of an elusive, soft-spoken, and deeply complex virtuoso who battles the unique struggle of not feeling black enough for black people or white enough for white people that actually grounds the movie.

But that's not given the attention it deserves because it appears that the filmmakers wanted to commercialize the movie and make it a "feel good" road trip dramedy that is more focused on Tony and Dr. Shirley's "unlikely friendship that ultimately transcends race" than anything else. I use quotations there because these are the phrases I keep hearing in the commercials, which are baffling. They underscore the fact that this movie has a serious identity problem. Is it the untold story of the real-life Dr. Shirley? Is it about Tony realizing the error of his ways? Is it about the Green Books? Or is it an odd couple comedy/road trip film? The answer is that it's none of these things. In its effort to check off all the boxes, Green Book ultimately becomes about nothing. These are too many subjects vying for attention and the only one that really gets heard is the white man. Typical.

This brings us back to the original question I was posed online: How do you whitewash the Green Books? After watching Green Book, the answer seems to be with great effort. Who would have thought that author Victor Green's series, which was written by and for black people and in part protected them from people like Tony, would be usurped by his story instead? This is yet another example of a white filmmaking team with no little to no connection to black history being given the authority to tell this story without any regard for it and illuminating it in a way that benefits them. There is an assumption that the audience doesn't know any better to question it and, judging by how it's been embraced by so many critics groups (which are white-dominated), maybe that's true. Because if there's anything Green Book does successfully is alienate black audiences from a story that is inherently theirs.