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What is worse than white guilt? The suppression of black unity is the case. The film Green Book (2018) comes in shades of the denial of black unity all over the place. The tussle between the two ideals play out with Viggo Mortensen’s character Tony Lip and Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley based on actual people. And that’s the crutch of the entire affair. Any criticism that may be leveled against the picture is often met with the vapid phrase, “but it’s based on a true story.” That does not give the film credence. The current trade in the arts from literature to cinema is to portray actual events and call them art. Some stories like 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Spotlight (2015) work because of the dynamics of the stories that are discussed. Though Slave shows the “white savior” in its portrayal of Brad Pitt’s character in mid 19th century America in the South, it displays the brutality of America’s original sin. In Spotlight, the Catholic Church is skewered with precision from the mighty pens and computers of dedicated journalists.
But in Book, the idea is that the sensitive Black man cannot defend himself. Did this happen in real life? Here lies the problem. Why does the white man have to step in to save the negro? Why can’t he have the ability to fight or defend himself? Or even further, would there have been a film made about two intelligent, strong, confident, heterosexual men of color who protect themselves as well as each other? What Book does is subvert the relations between whites and blacks. Oh, Lip has to be brash and boisterous but if Dr. Shirley even shows a bit of assertiveness, he’s perceived as uppity. The friendship that the two men strike up is too pat. In reality, the two men didn’t even have that close of an affinity for each other. The Jim Crow South receives little treatment as the vicious, ugly stretch of miles in which the car that Lip and Dr. Shirley travel. Once, when Dr. Shirley is being manhandled by three white men, it is Lip who has to step in to rescue Dr. Shirley. With all of the good intentions that the filmmakers like Peter Farrelly possessed in making this picture, they fail to portray a heroic, self-assertive black man. This is not new to Hollywood. From the origins of the machine, people of color have been depicted as subjects but not objects on the screen.
Green Book represents just another picture that perpetuates the stereotype that black men need a white man to stand guard against any abrasive figures. The light-hearted comedy doesn’t stretch enough to cover the 130 minute running time. The drama that should have been conveyed in this film doesn’t rise above the levels of simple interactions and facile banter. With three screenwriters tasked with bringing this true life story to the theaters, it would be expected that they would’ve done more research and therefore payed more respect to the actual characters. This is again the danger of the “based on a true story” idea. True Romanticism calls for an engaging plot, a cohesive theme, full, heroic characters and vicious villains, and a distinctive and consistent style. Films like Green Book hide behind the fact that the film is supposed to record what happened as opposed to projecting what happens in a totally fictional world.
Movies like Book remain a conundrum within the film realm. It is a tawdry attempt at illustrating what the mid 20th century was like for blacks touring in the South. For its many flaws, it ought to be viewed as just another case of a veneer of the truth.