Hollywood still loves a white savior: "Green Book" and the lazy, feel-good take on race

Let it be resolved in 2019: No more movies about race that center white people's feelings

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published December 30, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book" (Universal Pictures)
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book" (Universal Pictures)

"Green Book," this season's social message awards bait, is Hollywood's 2018 effort to make mainstream audiences feel good about Social Progress. Knowing this predisposed me to dislike the film, despite generally enjoying the work of its stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Their performances are the only sound elements about "Green Book," actually.

The barrier to entry is the film's devoted adherence to the oh-so-tired Social Progress film model, created to allow white audiences to connect to their humanity and create a separation between their own sense of righteousness and that eternal bugaboo known as racism.

Often this takes on the guise of a white savior story or, as seen 2017's award-winning "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," it becomes a tale of a repugnant bigot's redemption via the heroism of a flinty non-racist white person, preferably a woman.

Hollywood rained down Golden Globe and Oscar nominations on "Three Billboards," which eventually won a Globe for Best Drama and Globes and Oscars for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, who played the aforementioned bigot.

No actors of color received nods because non-white narratives had almost no place in the film, save for a minor character whom Rockwell's character arrests to spite McDormand's, and a late-in-the-game introduction of Clarke Peters, who becomes the deplorable cop's boss briefly before firing him.

"Green Book" combines popular ingredients of both tropes in the story of Frank Anthony Vallelonga, a Bronx-bred working class white racist casually known as Tony Lip, who overcomes his prejudice to become the tour driver for Dr. Don Shirley, a chilly, cultured, wealthy black musical genius who lives among regal treasures in an apartment above Carnegie Hall.

The title is derived from an actual publication called "The Negro Motorist Green Book," originally published in 1938 by a postal worker named Victor Hugo Green. The book was an indispensable guide to eating establishments and lodgings that welcomed black travelers in the Jim Crow South, and warned them of which towns were dangerous and possibly deadly to black people.

The film doesn't explain this aside from a brief mention of the book by a recording label executive passing it to Tony. But maybe there simply wasn't enough time to explain the true role of the "The Negro Motorist Green Book," given the extensive development devoted to fully humanizing Tony and accentuating his quirks and, um, flaws.

He's a loving family man held in high regard in his neighborhood. He's also a guy who tosses a pair of drinking glasses into the trash after his wife uses them to serve a drink to two black workmen. Seeing Tony in his fullness, the good and the bad, helps us to appreciate how quickly his bigotry dissolves in the face of "real" racism, the kind perpetuated South of the Mason-Dixon line.

Life up North can't be too bad for blacks if men like Don can live like kings while hard-working schlubs like Tony subject themselves to ridiculous hot dog eating contests just to get by, the film suggests.

When Tony isn't swooping in to save Don from the violent Southern supremacists lurking in the whites-only establishments into which Don — a man with multiple doctorate degrees, mind you — haplessly wanders, he's exposing him to the joys of eating fried chicken. It's his people's cuisine, Tony insists. This happens after Tony exposes Don to Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, which the film posits professional musician Don hears for the very first time thanks to his driver, racist-but-in-a-Northern-way Tony.

The literal and metaphorical layers here — black man in the backseat, white guy at the wheel — are simply stunning. Such dynamics are catnip for white audiences uncomfortable talking about racism, because "Green Book" presents violent manifestations of racial animus as an unfortunate element of a distant past. And racial harmony can be as easily attainable as refraining from calling groups of people "eggplants" and "jungle bunnies," and sharing a bucket of KFC with a fancy black man.

So the 1962 sojourn of Frank and Don isn't merely an uplifting odd couple tale of two men traveling the country in a vintage Cadillac. It's a bright, shiny blue vehicle for transformation that has scored five Golden Globe nominations, tying it with the latest remake of "A Star Is Born" and "The Favourite."

"Green Book" floated into theaters  on a raft of positive reviews by the nation's top tier of critics (most of them white and male, it should be noted) praising the stellar performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and being comforted by director Peter Farrelly's and writer Nick Vallelonga's (again: white and male) perspective, helped by Farrelly and Brian Currie. Together, they spin a parable of healing our racial divide, submitting that may be as simple a task as taking a ride with The Other.

"The movie taps into a kind of nostalgia for when everything — even racism — seemed simpler, and ready to be legislated out of existence," Vulture critic David Edelstein famously and regrettably mused. In hindsight, I'm so glad he did. Because this is precisely the delusion under which white people who primarily interact with people of color via TV and film operate. Some of these people are part of my extended family. They have heard such great things about "Green Book," I'd wager.

This celebratory viewpoint is precisely why directors need to stop making simplistic pabulum like it or "Three Billboards," or any movie that purports to tell stories about bigotry while decentralizing the experiences of marginalized people — you know, the very beings struggling under the weight of that bigotry.  They are not helping.

"Green Book" came onto the market in the same year that yielded "Black Panther," "Sorry to Bother You," "Blindspotting," "BlacKkKlansman" and the cinematic adaptations of "The Hate U Give" and "If Beale Street Could Talk."

On television, audiences savored "Atlanta: Robbin' Season," "The Chi," and new seasons of  "Insecure" and "Queen Sugar," all stories people of color rendered from the perspectives of writers and directors of color, and all of which have profound observations to make about race and discrimination, how they impacted our past and impede progress in the present.

It's safe to surmise that only a couple of these titles will ever be seen by the majority of filmgoers. But even these foment smarter, more thoughtful conversations about prejudice and inequality than "Green Book."  "Black Panther," by far the most commercially successful of the nominees listed here, takes on these themes in a way that honors the thorniness of the topic while mesmerizing the audience. In the simplest terms it asks what an African country might have achieved had colonialism never altered its course, and what responsibility the rulers of such a nation would have to the oppressed black people around the world.

That is a conversation about structural injustice, clothed in a first-rate superhero action film.

"Black Panther" and "BlacKkKlansman" also are up for Best Motion Picture Drama Globes thanks to the machines behind them, the former benefiting from the Marvel halo effect, the latter from Spike Lee's reputation in the industry. Fellow category nominee "Beale Street," is from Oscar-winning "Moonlight" writer and director Barry Jenkins; awards voters tend to favor previous winners.

And African Americans aren't the only group witnessing extreme dichotomies in how film and television portrays them.

The same year in which Alfonso Cuarón gave us "Roma," a moving, multiply-nominated tribute to the indigenous domestic who helped raise him, also brought us HBO's debut of "Icebox," following a 12-year-old Honduran boy held at the border and seeking asylum in the United States, and Showtime's soulful "Vida."  2018 also yielded "Peppermint." Did you catch that one? It's a revenge flick featuring Jennifer Garner as a grieving suburban mom who treats her depression by gunning down scores of tattooed brown people.

Setting aside the politics of such awards, however, what all these films offer are thoughtful entry points into our shared history of pain and progress, but via extensive character growth denied to characters of color in white savior takes.

"Green Book," meanwhile, has no equivalent conversation-starters in the Best Comedy category of the Globes, although "Sorry to Bother You" really should be there.

(Then again "Crazy Rich Asians" will face "Green Book" in that category, and I hope it wins. Asian Americans were well-represented on screen by John Cho in "Searching," Sandra Oh in "Killing Eve," Lana Condor in "To All the Boys I Loved Before" and Awkwafina in "Oceans 8." Here's hoping this continues until it's no longer a trend but a given in casting.)

Elements of "Green Book" reminded me of "Sorry," actually, specifically the scenes in which Lakeith Stanfield's Cash is forced to rap at a tech billionaire's party even though he insists that he cannot. His host assumed that his blackness naturally bestows such talent upon Cash who, following substantial pressure, brings the house down by repeating the "N"-word over and over again in syncopated cadence.

Ali manifests the same level of frustration throughout "Green Book" by breaking into a bright, forced smile at the close of every performance. But the way Farrelly shapes the movie, the part we're meant to note is Shirley's only natural expression of joy comes near the end of the movie when lets loose on a cheap and worn piano in a deep-South blues joint among his own people. You know, where he belongs.

Farrelly's vision is of a world gone by when things were far worse than they are now, and thank god for that! Boots Riley, who wrote and directed "Sorry," points out in deliriously surreal fashion that in fact, the same virulent racism and class war runs rampant even now, under the cover of technological enabling and mainstream polish.

It's much simpler, however, to spit-shine escapist Social Progress tales drawn from a mythologized version of history. These reassure mainstream white audiences of how far we've come as a nation despite the headlines about a spike in hate crimes, the rising white nationalist presence within law enforcement and in politics, racially motivated mass shootings and widening wealth gaps between whites and non-white minority groups.

None of this is to say that Farrelly has no right to direct "Green Book" or that Vallelonga should not have told his father's story. But it would have helped, perhaps, if someone from within Shirley's family circle had been consulted, if only to prevent "Green Book" from being a story about a white man's flirtation with racism by way of witnessing a black man's strained effort to survive and succeed in spite of it.

So in this way "Green Book" transforms racism into something that, you know, really makes you think, something terrible happening to other people, something that's really too bad, instead of an ever-present structure in America from which people either specifically or unwittingly benefit. Racism is awful, but it doesn't force Tony to risk anything aside from punching out a few people threatening the guy who's paying him.

And that's soothing. It sells the idea that as long as a person doesn't behave like a violent criminal from Sundown Town, Alabama, when confronted with a person whose skin is darker than theirs, that's enough. The passage of time will take care of the rest, assisted by a few take-out meals and road trips along the way.

"Green Book" is a manual for an outdated mode of thinking, in other words, and a mode of moviemaking that needed to end yesterday. But we'll take 2019. That would be a fine time for fresh start.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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