The white man as the all-encompassing teacher of civility to the ‘not-so civilised’ rest, is perhaps so entrenched in our collective subconscious that it may take a volley of new films to deal even the faintest of blows to that trope.
What Green Book does is a reversal. It presents a black gentleman in Don Shirley, a classical pianist, celebrated for the virtuoso he is in 1960s America, and his Italian American bouncer-turned-chauffeur who learns the basics of civility from the musician himself, during their trip to the deep south for a concert tour.
That the film won the Best Picture Oscar, and managed to kick up controversy on social platforms thereafter is quite intriguing. Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Vallelonga are a joy to watch — both exceptionally good at their craft.
The film borrows the title from The Negro Motorist Green-Book, a manual for travelling African Americans to help them find welcoming motels and eateries in a racially divided America.
The 91st Oscars
Though at a glance, the 91st Academy awards appear as a diverse platter with Rami Malek’s Best Actor win for Bohemian Rhapsody, Alfonso Cuaron as the Best Director for Roma and the best writing prize for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman along with the recognition for Black Panther, the credibility of the intent beneath the facade of sickening sweetness remains questionable.
Hollywood, for a fact, has never attempted to portray the African American for what s/he is, except for a few films that never truly managed to draw the attention they deserved for the same racial prejudice — works of director Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins’ recent work Moonlight come to mind. Mahershala Ali starred in Moonlight too, which won the actor an Oscar for that movie as well.
So, what are black actors in a Hollywood film? Essentially they are props. That is why even a genuine effort to tell the story of a black-white friendship, as in the Green Book, seems to invite a petty row.
The truth is, with such rich history in music, and the black identity at the centre of it, America still fails to acknowledge the community’s contributions to that country even after the passing of centuries.
Jazz legends have come and gone. But we rarely see a film that celebrates them or jazz, except for scores and such, and half-baked profiles of greats like Miles Davis made so poorly.
The question remains, why Hollywood is not able to do justice in reflecting upon African American cultural history in film. Plainly put, it never considered that as important.
It reduced the black players to mere props in their portrayal of American society. And when push came to shove from various quarters of late, it started to make movies that patronised blacks. Never really considering s/he is as capable or deserving artistic recognition as much as the predominantly white community of artists and crew.
Repression and creative genius
In the past, such repression produced legends, at least in music, such as Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Mary Lou Williams, Thelonius Monk and Herbie Hancock to name a few in a long line of great American artists. And still, they remain hugely missed, just as they are black.
In fact, in Green Book, why Don Shirley is more of a classical pianist, not a jazz musician is a testimony to the fact that he did not want to identify with the jazz musicians who often played for the white man’s entertainment at the elite clubs of New York.
Shirley, on the contrary, wanted to be associated with classical music, than the often wretched and degraded jazz players, who smoked and drank on stage finding themselves in the midst of all debauchery. There is a scene in Green Book when Shirley and the chauffeur visit an Afro-American restaurant, where Shirley carefully puts away the glass of whisky resting on the piano, upon an invitation to play by a bartender.
Green Book does not even dwell that deep into music, nor does it confront the racial spectre in earnest. If one expected better choices at the Oscars, one has rather high expectations from an industry that has always downplayed the achievements of rich culture and tradition and made a mockery of it in visual arts.
Childish Gambino’s take
This very fact is brought forth in a recent groundbreaking music video by Childish Gambino — This is America — which scooped up awards at the recent Grammys and a fair share of critical acclaim after its release.
In fact, those who are indeed worried about the portrayal of African Americans in the entertainment industry, the work of Donald Glover, the artist who goes by the name Childish
Gambino in music, is the definitive case in point, not the Green Book.
‘This is America’ throws the question back at the African American community -- What are you folks doing playing blown up versions of yourselves, to answer the question that has haunted mankind forever? When movies like Green Book try to see the inherent problem from the perpetrator’s perspective, Donald Glover addresses the issue by internalising it.
Glover paints a satirical caricature in the music video of black existence, that took only a couple of minutes or so to convey the message compared to a moving picture that spans a couple of hours in Green Book.