Green Book is almost refreshingly tone-deaf in its mid-century liberalism. Which, apparently, is still late 2010s liberalism, if writers Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the protagonist) have anything to say about it. And, if for no other reason than to remind us that this variant of faux-egalitarian genteel liberal cinema undetained by questions of power and politics still exists this deep into the 21st century, I suppose I have to thank Green Book for taking my breath away. With Moonlight, Sorry to Bother You, and Us, I’d hoped we’d moved on. But here I am about to claim anything especially positive about late ‘10s American cinema on the subject of race, and Green Book has kindly arrived to keep me on my guard. Would that the film had any interest in exploring what its African-American deuteragonist has to do to keep himself on guard.
Instead of what it does do, which is – to the surprise of no one – subsume Shirley’s personal and physical crises to the role of a reflective mirror for a white protagonist. The two characters I write of are classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), about to depart for a two-month concert trip through the Jim Crow South in roughly November and December of 1962, and Italian-American (the film is very interested in us knowing that he is Italian-American) working-stiff Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), hired to serve as Dr. Shirley’s chauffer and all-purpose bodyguard. The conceit of the narrative, then, rests on our awareness that a black man in the South in the ‘60s will, as Tony informs us, cause “trouble”. But that trouble is more important for us, meaning white America, than for Shirley, at least in the film’s mind. The film’s perspective is almost exclusively hewn to Tony’s, the script exhibiting a clear favoritism for his moral awakening compared with Shirley’s plight, let alone the collective suffering of African-Americans in the South (or North), all of whom are meaningful in the film only as background.
As – to be honest – is Tony. While I’ve already made the obvious point – that Shirley only exists in this film to validate Tony’s crisis of conscience – the truth is that Green Book has an almost exclusively functionalist relationship to all of its characters (but especially Shirley). It treats them each as a collection of qualities and features that never come into play except in moments where the plot finds them instrumental or where they can be expressly thematized. Thus, Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality is “useful” for the film in one scene, and briefly in a second, and evaporated from the film’s conscious at all other times. And to any dubious claims that this serves some sort of “humanist” purpose – to ask us not to over-emphasize any identitarian features in order to treat Donald as a “person” first and foremost (rather than a black person, a gay person, etc) – the film submits not one ounce of stray human energy to suggest that it actually ever cares about these characters as people in the first place. No internal desires or personal uncertainties seep out of the tight confines of film narrative. There’s no room for any personal excess – for the characters to exhibit traits or features which the film doesn’t know what to do with, which it can’t immediately schematize and instrumentalize toward a kind of dialectic synthesis designed to harmonize the two main characters into a friendship. (The film does, admittedly, make the somewhat bold decision to give Tony a character trait that I don’t know what to do with, namely that he is the type of person who enjoys folding an entire pizza in half and eating it at once).
Even a half-folded pizza, however, is too much to ask for the film’s opinion of Shirley. The screenplay is certainly not interested in the psychic weight of Shirley’s doubly and triply torn consciousness, and in the only scene where it pretends to be so interested (an instantly dubious argument in a car driving through rain), the film uses the various aspects of his identity – his wealth, in particular, and his alienation – as buttresses for Tony’s claims about Shirley, turning the latter into an anthropological object for Tony to examine more than a subject. The scene – obviously intended to be the dramatic catharsis of the film – immediately glosses as “depth” on a first pass, but the moral architecture of the conversation is nothing more than an excuse to knock Dr. Shirley off what the film sees as his high horse, topping off its suspect investment in questioning whether Dr. Shirley is able to speak for what Tony refers to as “his people,” meaning African-Americans.
This, of course, is despite the fact that Dr. Shirley never asks to speak for anyone, nor displays any desire to. But Tony’s claim that he is, himself, “blacker” than Shirley – the film loudly underlining class rather than race – isn’t meant as a stepping stone on the path to a kind of working-class solidarity in service of overthrowing or even questioning the wealthy. It is not meant to suggest that Shirley might abandon his class privilege and Tony his racial biases in service of hypothetical political solidarity. Instead, it’s a bourgeois comedy of differences reconciled by some perceived kindness of human conscious, what the film posits is a benevolent human nature that shall triumph over concerns about power and privilege which it would prefer to not raise. Green Book isn’t meaningfully interested in Tony’s class except to critique Shirley, and it certainly isn’t invested in the political ramifications of their trip. It just wants them to be friends.
Reducing an African-American character to a plot device is, unfortunately, nothing new in the cinematic world, nor in any other narrative medium, especially when in service of an essentially individualist story about personal conscience rather than a structural consideration about systems of oppression. In the film’s mind, Shirley’s personal sense of “dignity” – echoing a theme of black personal responsibility and conservative uplift more than a century old – is what will slay the beast of racism, not any substantial political reform. And the film certainly does not raise the possibility that the kind of uplift so common to respectability politics might acquiesce to normative standards of social decorum and personal “responsibility” and end up constraining black bodies and minds more than liberating them, placing the burden of personal composure on them, not white people. Except, of course, the film actually does raise the possibility that restraint and uplift alone won’t do – that violence may be necessary, as Malcolm X was suggesting at the time the film is set – by, egregiously, legitimizing Tony’s use of violence against two black robbers. Apparently, the full force of the majority of America’s oppressive racial consciousness weighing down on you day in and day out is not reason enough, in the film’s mind, to mobilize more explicit forms of (possibly violent) resistance, but it is ok to do so to “save” one wealthy black man from two presumably non-wealthy ones.
But that’s just a matter of fact for the film, which does not even seem conscious of what it’s doing as it pats itself on the back. The film’s central assumption is that Southern racism is, if not excused, at least significantly ameliorated because it legitimates one exceptional black man in the mind of a working-class Northerner. This isn’t a matter of debate, nor an opinion; it isn’t presented explicitly, as a character’s perspective, but implicitly and structurally as the governing animus of the film’s mind, any alternative perniciously thus going unvoiced. The absence of other possibilities is simply a given in the film, which educates us not in any impulse of contestation (either radical contestation or democratic dialogue) but in the art of appreciating us for the legitimacy of our thoughts. While the film does make the case that this legitimacy means something to Dr. Shirley, it isn’t interested in exploring what that might be, or what currents of African-American thought or experience have led him to ascetically endorse “dignity” above all. It simply proposes dignity as an a priori, as though the only thing an African-American person could or would teach a white person is how to be “dignified”. (And clearly, this isn’t meant to imply that Shirley is teaching Tony how to be more conscious of his surroundings, more perspectival and more open to seeing the world around him, because Tony rather summarily disabuses the perpetually aloof Dr. Shirley of the belief that he has any real awareness of his surroundings).
Even though Green Book scoffs at the bald-faced inappropriateness of some of Tony’s comments, it rather perniciously pats Tony on the back for “helping” Shirley become what the film thinks is a more “regular” black person, contouring Shirley’s identity to fit into Tony’s stereotype of blackness. The film defends this as a kind of working-class wisdom, a liberating honesty about blackness which Tony seems to have and can wield against Shirley’s prudish anti-social-ness. Shirley’s moral awakening is his refusal to play at one segregated and white-run establishment and his choice, instead, to tickle the ivories at a traditional African-American juke-joint, the kind written about provocatively by Zora Neale Hurston as a defining feature of Southern black culture, and one which grants Shirley the film’s short-hand for personal liberation as he switches modes from classical to jazz mid-performance. (The film codes classical as white and jazz as black without thinking about what this actually means).
Green Book is filled with moments like these, ones which could, in a thornier and denser production which reveled in the existential thickness of its characters and themes, explore the possibilities of racial awakening in various guises. But in Green Book, rather bizarrely not content to simply treat Shirley as a canvas for Tony’s awakening, Shirley’s awakening is actually construed as the product of Tony’s “sage” wisdom: it is Tony who teaches this film’s version of the art of blackness. If this is some kind of liberating maneuver for Shirley, now allowing himself to proverbially let loose, it is presented not as his escape from the confines of what E. Franklin Frazier called the black bourgeoisie. Rather, it is presented as a validation that Tony’s opinions on the black working class (“they have more fun” and “they’re more authentic” are always hovering beneath his breath) is legitimate. That the black working-class might have a say in any of this is, again, a structuring assumption on the film’s part.
When Tony initially voices that Shirley needs to learn the ways of “his people”, this would be a reasonable wrinkle into a homogenized black vs. white film if the film had already done the intellectual and emotional work to get us to that point. Tony’s point could be read, in another film, as a critique that Shirley lives in a room decorated with African artifacts – metaphorically encasing himself in a Romantic and possibly essentialized vision of “Africa” – despite not having any real connection to the problems and possibilities of American blackness. Again, in a more textured film, the moment would resonate with decades of critique by African-American thinkers claiming that a notion of a black ancestral homeland in Africa has sometimes been more of a protective armor for middle-class African-Americans who avoided dealing with what they perceived as the African-American masses. Those thinkers claim that some African-Americans of the middle class found or discovered “home” in a perhaps apocryphal far off land so as to avoid making home – politically, through solidarity and resistance – in the US. That claim is open to debate, of course. But considering that the film’s comic vision of “true” blackness is eating fried chicken and playing jazz – and only those things – debate is not on Green Book’s mind.
For that reason, Green Book ultimately perverts and debases old democratic ideals about interpersonal reconciliation (that the core of democracy is learning from one another, and carving out public and private spaces for the blossoming of empathy). Or perhaps it reveals how debatable those ideals themselves have always been, not necessarily because they intrinsically incline toward political limitation but because, in practice, they are often self-congratulatory, excusatory, and willing to posit slivers of mutual sympathy rather than sustained commitments to political solidarity as the path to a better future. True debate of course, isn’t on the mind in Green Book, situating the film very comfortably within the halls of decades of Hollywood Oscarbait that considers cinema not as a text worthy of analysis, opening-up, or generative interpretation (leading to fascinating contradiction and, in turn, either productive synthesis or provocative disjunction).
Instead, Green Book is cinema as a mere tool, a blunt instrument with a story to tell or a case to be made, but with no real self-reflective perspective on that story or the capacity of film to realize it. To cite recent examples, consider how Shape of Water merely “uses” race rather than thinking it, and how La La Land totally dismisses it, or how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri masquerades as free-wheeling social critique in service of a comparatively rote, confused moral parable. As with all those films, Green Book is total cinematic snake oil, all the more muddled because of how hard it is to tell whether its orientation to the material is that of a cynical gash-grab or an earnest if misguided belief in the moral worth of alternately glib and semi-reprehensible material.