Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
Years ago we got a film that was, shockingly, about a black man driving around a rich white woman in the Old South. We were supposed to feel good about their friendship and about how far we had come as a society from those dangerously racist times, and as an added bonus people who weren’t there then learned a lot about how it Really Was back then. Well, sorta. It was more of a Sesame Street approach to that horrid piece of American history and a classic example of the Magical Negro in film. In Green Book, we get that paired with another trope, the White Savior. It did feel at times as if the two main characters were in a competition to save the other even more.
Green Book is a fictionalized account of the friendship that grew between a white driver and his African-American passenger, making it nothing like Driving Miss Daisy. The driver is a rough around the edges tough guy from Brooklyn who takes a job driving a supremely talented and worldly musician around the southern US in 1962. Both men experienced culture shock in the south, which was humorous in a way. Doctor Shirley knew he was in for a racist treat, just not how much, and Tony Lip was similarly ignorant of just how bad it could be.
This danger of travelling while black in the Jim Crow south is exactly why the titular Green Book was originally written. It outlined not so much where people of color were welcomed, but where they were allowed to sleep, eat, and even go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. If there was a sundown law in a municipality, travelers knew to get indoors or better yet out of town by dusk or risk serious threats from civilians and police. In the movie this threatening sequence was enforced by an actual sign at the edge of town, but cities tended to be a little more (not much) subtle than that. Like many other people, I wondered while watching why white men were the only people actually handling the book in the film. The best I could figure was that the boss wouldn’t be dealing with the day-to-day navigation.
In our More Enlightened Time, it seems like we’re reluctant to fully view some of the more evil aspects of our country’s history. Movies like Driving Miss Daisy and Hidden Figures and Green Book allude to stuff and let loose a tiny hint of threat in order to raise the dramatic stakes. It’s a Disney-fied version of history.
Ali and Morgenstern have been lauded as actors in the film, but I found both of them to be over the top and stereotypical. A lot of that could be attributed to the writing and directing, of course, which is fairly by the numbers for this kind of historical. Today’s movies make the 60s look so much prettier than I remember it, and it sure is fun to see the clothing and cool cars (with no seatbelts!) and gentler architecture. We caught a couple of continuity errors which made us laugh and I found my toe tapping during the dive bar scene. Some parts of the movie are genuinely, on purpose funny, especially the recurring joke about the driver’s letters home to his wife.
I wasn’t as insulted by the movie as a lot of people have been, but I do understand some peoples’ problems and agree with a lot of it. Green Book is a pretty film with solid acting that could have been better. I’m neutral on whether I would recommend it or not, given the problems. A viewer might learn a few things, especially if she goes the extra mile and reads about the controversies over the film, and there are some laughs and fun music. The “lessons” each lead teaches the other gets embarrassingly preachy a few times, so watch out for that. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t think I’ll go to the trouble of seeing it again.
Green Book – Official Trailer [HD]
A Bit of History – The Negro Motorist Green Book