So about twelve days ago late on Friday night, the movie “The Green Book” came on the TV channel this blogger was watching (“Good Will Hunting” preceded it). Admittedly, your writer has thus far resisted viewing The Green Book, fearing that the movie, despite winning Best Picture in 2019, would be boring. It is, after all, largely a story of two men from New York traveling through the early 1960s South for a tour of classical piano concerts. Fortunately, it was an incorrect assessment, and the excellence of the film (in spite of a number of reviews critical of its subject matter) prompted this piece.
In fact, when The Green Book won Best Picture at The Oscars just 18 months ago, the movie actually faced fierce criticism from the “woke left,” many of whom deemed it a “white savior” story unworthy of distribution, let alone accolades, in an era of racial reckoning. Apparently, this leftist crowd saw the interplay of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a working class New York Italian hired as a driver for a prominent classical musician and played brilliantly by Viggo Mortensen, and Dr. Donald Shirley, a world-class African American concert pianist determined to take his talents away from the urbane Northeast and into the segregated South and played brilliantly by two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali, solely via the lens of “Tony Lip” as the protector of the book-but-not-street smart Dr. Shirley.
To say the least, the woke analysis entirely misses the point of the film. First, the movie is as much about the duality of a “savior role” between two men from very different backgrounds. Tony Lip does protect Dr. Shirley from serious harm when he finds his way to a segregated bar, and when several men lay in wait to rob the pair after Dr. Shirley unintentionally flashes a wad of cash, and when Dr. Shirley is caught by police in a compromising situation with another man. But Dr. Shirley responds in kind by repeatedly saving Tony Lip from his less than charitable impulses and less than worldly demeanor, forcing Tony to return a rock he steals from a roadside gas station, assisting him with writing love letters to his wife, and regularly pushing Tony to comport himself with a basic decency the driver often lacks. And in fact, when Tony cannot keep them out of jail for violating an anti-black curfew in a racist southern town, it is Dr. Shirley’s connection to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that prompts their expeditious release from custody. In effect, these two men – who share little in common culturally and behaviorally – both endeavor to utilize their strengths to better the other, in something of the same manner the “buddy cop” routine has been employed in Hollywood productions for decades.
It is likely that the woke criticism of The Green Book did not just stem from the phony “white savior” claim, however. In effect, The Green Book turns the general racial narrative of the United States on its head. Tony Lip – a white ethnic whose knowledge of the world doesn’t extend much beyond his Italian neighborhood in New York City and to whom we are introduced via a high-stakes hot dog eating contest – is a man of the street, the common folk, and to a degree the downtrodden and overlooked in our society. By contrast, Dr. Shirley is among the true elite in America, a classical pianist of great repute who both lives and carries himself in a regal manner and is feted by the most cultured residents of NYC (and as we see early in the film, in university towns across the North). Our introduction to Dr. Shirley first comes when he interviews Tony Lip for the open driver position on his upcoming music tour, and is surreal in its depiction of a kingly man so highfalutin he lives in a lavishly-furnished apartment above Carnegie Hall.
Obviously, the depiction of a somewhat downtrodden white ethnic serving as a chauffeur for a high-class black man defies our stereotypes of America in the 1960s (as it should). But the juxtaposition of preconceived roles is what makes the film less orthodox and quite special. Even then, it was not inconceivable for an urbane black man whose brilliance in the classical arts brought him into the upper echelon of society, and it was quite common for a white ethnic to be, at his core, a hustler whose talents were capable of putting him in a subservient role to a high-end member of even a minority group. And what is revealed by this juxtaposition is that humanism itself is transracial. As individuals, even in a segregated society, men are not solely defined by their race, they are defined much more by their background, their character, and their accomplishments.
The idea of transracial humanity – the idea that all human experience cross racial boundaries and one is not defined by his or her race – directly contradicts the corrupt narrative of race essentialism currently being peddled by much of the woke crowd. In a society defined by race essentialism, one’s status as a “white” or a “black” is the core feature of an individual’s existence. The Green Book categorically rejects this narrative, and does so in an era where race was far more essential to a person’s prospects than it is today.
In the most poignant scene in a movie full of them, as the pair drives down a rural highway in an unknown part of the South, the car’s radiator fails. Nearby, a handful of black sharecroppers (yes, sharecroppers) are working a field. As Tony Lip repairs the automobile, Dr. Shirley emerges from the backseat and leans on the side of the car, not lifting a finger. One by one, the sharecroppers stop working and stare at Dr. Shirley, who silently returns their gaze, presumably incredulous at the site of this dignified black man being chauffeured by a white man. Essentializing race cannot explain what these oppressed field hands are witnessing, but a transracial view of the human condition – where the outcome of one’s life is determined by a multitude of factors and not merely the innate characteristic of skin color – absolutely can.