Step one: cleanse the skin?
The Green Book was real. It was a guide that let African-Americans navigate the cities, towns and roadways of Jim Crow America.
Now, Green Book is a movie. In the film — directed by Peter Farrelly of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” fame — Viggo Mortensen plays a driver hired to escort a musician, played by Mahershala Ali, on a tour of the southern United States. The Green Book is their guide. It’s a mix of a road trip drama and a buddy comedy, with a running commentary about race.
The movie has drawn generally positive reviews, but a number of critics have pointed out that it seems to be more of a pollyannaish look at the past than a realistic exploration of a difficult history — a story that presents good intentions as a panacea to racism.
“The movie taps into a kind of nostalgia for when everything — even racism — seemed simpler, and ready to be legislated out of existence,” David Edelstein writes in New York Magazine.
And Booke Obie writes this in Shadow and Act:
In Farrelly’s Green Book, Black people don’t even touch the Green Book, let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives. Instead, the film centers the story of a racist white man who makes an unlikely Black friend on a journey through the American south and becomes slightly less racist.
In this reverse-Driving Miss Daisy film, Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony Lip, an Italian American bouncer hired to drive and protect Mahershala Ali’s queer, Jamaican-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a concert tour from Manhattan down to the deep south.
The first mention of the Negro Motorist Green Book in the film is when a white representative from Dr. Shirley’s record company pulls Lip aside to hand him a copy and explain that Lip will need it to know where he can safely take Dr. Shirley on this trip down south.
“Three years ago when we started writing this thing, no one knew about it –not no one, obviously, but nobody I knew,” Farrelly told Shadow and Act about why he chose to title his movie Green Book. “White people didn’t know about it, I didn’t know about it, and most of the Black people that I spoke with didn’t know about,” he said.
And you still won’t know about it after watching this movie, because the Green Book, much like the film, only exists as a prop to enhance white understanding of white racism and white privilege in this country.
For this meeting of The 1A Movie Club, we see “Green Book” and ask how effectively it delivers its message.
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Preet Bharara is the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.