Green Book sucked [and trailers I saw]

Gun hunting season ends tomorrow at dusk, so I’ve been trying to do a few chores that are easier to do by myself, and squeeze some films in. Tonight I saw Green Book (and I hope to squeeze in The Front Runner and Boy Erased tomorrow).

Green Book

I was listening to 1A Movie Club when they played Carol Shirley Kimble’s call expressing the Shirley family’s dismay at the film, so — despite the pleasure of Mahershala Ali in the co-lead, which convinced me to go — I was even more skeptical about this than I was after seeing the trailer the first time.

First: I can totally understand why the Shirley family would be offended by the portrayal of Donald Shirley here, which doesn’t add up. On top of not talking to the Shirley family, the scriptwriters apparently did no research to understand or incorporate in the character the self-concept of the cosmopolitan Black elite of the 60s to which Shirley so obviously belonged (everything in his apartment says this, but of course, since we see it only from the perspective of Tony Lip, it just seems weird). The movie wants us to see Shirley in the context of jazz musicians, but to understand the would-be classical musician and his training, we need a broader context. Shirley was born in 1927,  the same year as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, whose families, like him, came from the Caribbean. He was of the same generation as Maya Angelou, Franz Fanon, Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Like them, he had traveled and possessed a strong sense of African and world culture and his comparable international experiences lent people like him the same developed self-regard and tastes. When James Brown, a member of the same generation who had not traveled, recorded “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” it reflected the culmination and growing self-awareness that drew on this group’s experiences and self-esteem. It didn’t reflect any ambivalence or self-doubt about Black culture among Don Shirley or people like him. To see this film, you’d think he was a unicorn.

Second: Unfunny stereotypes abound. For example, the extent to which the movie turns on one repeated “joke” about African-Americans (their alleged disproportionate love for fried chicken) is both not credible — did anyone living in the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century escape the fried chicken craze? did anyone, Black or white, who grew up in the Florida panhandle in the 20s not eat it as a child? — and incredibly racist. Is it really that important to the film and its message that Shirley was a man of fastidious manners? Or is this just a cheap way to suggest that Tony Lip apparently thought Shirley wasn’t “Black enough” because he failed to conform to Tony Lip’s picture of how Black people should be? (There’s a similar point to be made about Lip’s list of Black artists with whom Shirley is unfamiliar, given that Chubby Checker, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin were all crossover successes.) And given that Tony Lip’s racism erodes not because he realizes he’s a jerk, but rather in the face of his growing appreciation of Shirley’s talent and education, isn’t this essentially a film that primarily demonstrates not the growing enlightenment of a white racist, but rather the heart-warming, albeit self-hating, success of respectability politics?

Third: When will white screenwriters start to understand that U.S prejudices against African Americans shouldn’t be a dramatic instrument for the self-discovery and moral improvement of white men? Shirley doesn’t change much in this film (except, apparently, for becoming willing to eat fried chicken with his fingers and getting a little more street smart); all the transformation comes on Tony Lip’s part. Now: I’m not denying that for many Americans, actual experiences with people from a minority against which they had previously held prejudices lead to a change of heart. What I’m asking is why that particular story (privileged white man undergoes political transformation after befriending one of the formerly disdained group) seems to be embedded so inseparably in our cultural discourse about racism? Why are successful, mainstream film stories about U.S. racism so often about the personal growth of the white characters and so seldom about the experience and effects of actual racism? And why are they about one relationship? (This seems like the American version, mutatis mutandis, of “one of my best friends is Jewish”). Because no matter how much Tony Lip learned from this whole experience, the fact remains that the only reason he had it in the first place was the very real danger in which Shirley put himself by traveling through the Deep South to perform in whites-only venues. In that sense, the theme of the Green Book — an essential survival tool — is almost a throwaway in the film, which is unfortunate given the growing sense that many African Americans now have that parts of the U.S. that had grown safe for travel have ceased to be so.

Fourth, and most damning: Once again we get a film about how racism is primarily a consequence of ignorance and if people just learned about each other, we’d all get along. Tony Lip doesn’t appear to have any actual racial animus; his pre-Shirley behaviors are almost reflexive, without rationale. Indeed, you could think from seeing this film that racism has nothing to do with power (or anxiety about it). Which raises the problem of the criminal policemen in Alabama toward the end of the film — who lived in a state with a twenty-five percent Black population. There’s no way you can say that the policemen were ignorant about African Americans people or that if they’d just have learned more about their neighbors, there would be no race problem in Alabama. In fact, the opposite is true — living in proximity to Black people seemed to make white Alabamans of the 60s (and before) even more anxious and willing to exercise prejudice: to me, legislating that Black people have to stay out of town after the sun sets is a classic expression of fear. This film seems designed to make white viewers comfortable, as it implies that there’s no connection between the uninformed racism of a Tony Lip and the vicious racism of the rural Alabama police. So let’s all pat ourselves on the back because we’ve never been open racists like they were in Alabama. Reality check: racism is a whole set of power relationships within a society, it is just as present even when no illegal traffic stop is occurring, and combating it involves way more than making friends with a single person of a different race.

In sum, this film is really distressing and frustrating to watch, and I can’t recommend it. The most productive part of seeing this film for me was learning an Italian racial slur I was unfamiliar with. Non-U.S. viewers will also see demonstrated why Spooks was re-titled MI-5 for U.S. viewers. Anachronistically, the film almost completely avoids the use of the most inflammatory, but also most common at the time, racial slur.

Gloria Bell

A divorced, middle-aged woman looks for personal adventure in a new relationship. This looks good, but it’s a remake of a 2013 film. I suppose I should be happy that the director is remaking his own film (?) but to me this looks like yet another case of “we can’t get U.S. audiences to watch an intriguing film if we have to subtitle it.” Probably, although I wonder if it will actually make it here.

The Best of Enemies

Based on the story of Ann Atwater, a North Carolina activist who fought the battle for school segregation in Durham in 1971. This one looked intriguing and it’s got Taraji P. Henson in the lead. Definitely, if it makes it here.

What Men Want

When I saw this trailer before I thought, huh, maybe, which is where I still am. Plus: Taraji P. Henson.

The Mule

An impecunious elderly veteran (Clint Eastwood) runs drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel and reaps the consequences. All I could think of while watching this was Eastwood’s “Just Say No” PSAs from the 1980s. Definitely not, unless it gets nominated for an Oscar, and maybe not even then given my visceral negative reaction to Eastwood.

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral

Tyler Perry performs his signature character in his signature style — doesn’t really tickle my funny bone. No.

They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s lauded documentary on WWI from the viewpoint of the soldiers, with colorized / speed-edited footage from the period. I’m torn on this because it’s a film that students will see and ask about, and yet I can more or less predict what the community of professional historians will have to say about it, i.e., it’s probably a must-see for me and I probably will not like it. Probably.


Historical film about Dick Cheney and his role in the Bush II administration. Definitely.

~ by Servetus on November 25, 2018.

14 Responses to “Green Book sucked [and trailers I saw]”

  1. I’ve been debating over whether or not to see The Green Book. From the trailer it did look like “a white man gets woke” type of story but I had hoped there would be historical stuff about the green book and why it was important. I think I’ll take your advice and skip it…I saw The Grinch this morning and it was super cute. I think the next one up for me will probably be Mary Poppins Returns.


    • The Green Book itself is almost tangential to the story, except as an object. I think it’s a convenient way for them to say “it was dangerous for Black folk to travel in the U.S. if they didn’t know where they could stop in advance” and there are scenes where it’s shown to be dangerous for Shirley to get off the beaten path, but I think it’s nothing at the level the average viewer didn’t know about. They show them using it twice, and both scenes suggest in different ways that the purpose of the book is to scam Black travelers for poor accommodations (which I am sure happened, but since that’s basically the only time you see it in use, it’s a very one-side picture).

      I think I’ve decided to keep my illusions intact on both Grinch and MP, but I am thinking about Ralph Breaks the Internet.


  2. I am going top see The Green book (mainly because of Viggo) and PJ’s documentary when they come.


    • My prediction is that most people will love the documentary and Jackson or someone on his time will win an Oscar, possibly in one of the technical categories.

      I didn’t get into performances here, but I will say that although I haven’t seen a film of Mortensen’s since “A Dangerous Method,” and I don’t follow his career, the transformation here is impressive. I also think it’s likely he’ll get some award nominations out of this film.


  3. i rarely go to the cinema because there’s just so much ‘urgh’ out there. Best of Enemies looks reasonable-an Sam Rockwell has generally a high standard in films he chooses. Re They Shall Not Grow Old-i admit i didn’t watch it-but it was on the BBC on Remembrance Sunday and was widely lauded

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I was interested in The Green Book, but several of the points you made assure me it would annoy me to watch it.

    I don’t think I’ll be able to pass on What Men Want, even though it looks like a remake of the Mel Gibson What Women Want movie, main reason, the lead actress is awesome, (loved her in Person of Interest) and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule.

    Thanks for your reviews.👍🏼

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I want to see The Green Book for Viggo and Mahershala. I wonder if the points you made will also annoy me, as I know nothing about the backstory of all this.
    Especially The Best of Enemies looks good to me!


  6. […] of Eastwood’s The Mule that expresses exactly what I thought after seeing only the trailer. […]


  7. […] this came Green Book, which I was very curious about after having read Servetus’s criticism of it. I really like both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali and the story interested me too. Mahershala […]


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