The Systematic Attack on the Jim Crow era drama ‘Green Book’ for
In the last 48 hours, “Green Book”– which wasn’t a legit front runner until Sunday’s Golden Globes– has been trashed over and over.
First there was a ridiculous whisper campaign that the movie was somehow racist. Or racist in an old fashioned way. Again, ludicrous. Then actor Viggo Mortensen used the “N” word to describe the use of the “N” word– not to call anyone the “N” word– and his misspeaking was turned against him like a flame thrower.
Since Sunday, someone poured through the screenwriter’s ancient messages to find something they could call anti-Muslim. Then the director was accused of taking his penis out when he directed comedies.
On top of that, someone dug up the distant relatives of Don Shirley, who suddenly think the film is inaccurate. Could it be they’re angry they weren’t consulted or paid for the film? Someone ginned them up.
All of this is orchestrated very carefully. Do you really think it appears by accident? No, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to try and kill off “Green Book.”
The same thing happened last summer to “First Man.” A front runner when it opened to rapturous reviews in Venice, Damien Chazelle’s film was suddenly shouted down for not being patriotic. Whoever came up with that item about the American flag scene not being re-enacted was an evil genius. They destroyed a wonderful film.
It was too late to really hurt “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but an effort rose up right after it won the Golden Globe. Even though Bryan Singer was forced out of the production soon after it started, a suggestion was made on Monday that the movie should be punished for his past indiscretions. But “BR” has already made $750 million, and a lot of people love it. Singer’s problems are of course irrelevant.
I’m surprised no one’s come after the portrayal of Queen Anne in “The Favourite,” or found fault with the treatment of alcoholism in “A Star is Born.” Maybe the paella was made wrong in “Roma.”
Once Oscar nominations come out on January 22nd, watch for more “revelations” and reprisals against the front runners. Maybe Glenn Close really killed that bunny in “Fatal Attraction.” Or better yet– Wakanda isn’t even a real place!
As for “Green Book”: it deserves all accolades.
Based on a true story, Green Book is a heartfelt movie set in the early 1960s, about a virtuoso African-American pianist and his white working class chauffeur, who embark on a concert tour in the deep South.
Directed by Peter Farrelly, the movie features Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. The screenplay was written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, in collaboration with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie.
The film’s title comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by New York City postman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966 as a guide for black travelers looking for safe havens in the Southern states that enforced Jim Crow segregation.
The movie opens in 1962 in New York City. Tony, a good-natured, semi-literate Bronx resident with a wife and two children, is on layoff from his job as a bouncer at the Copacabana night club. He interviews for a position as a driver and “muscle” with Don, an internationally renowned pianist, who lives in a sumptuous apartment above the prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Imperious and magnificent, Don has surrounded himself with gorgeous art and artifacts from around the world. The economic and cultural gap between the two is great, particularly given the fact that Tony has never before had to challenge his own racial prejudices.
Nonetheless, Tony is hired to make sure Don and his two musicians (the other members of the Don Shirley Trio) arrive safely at their contracted destinations throughout the South. Tony soon comes under the sway of Don’s personality and talents. At times, he has to forcefully defend the black pianist from both ruffians and more genteel racists, along with club-wielding cops.
In some of the poshest venues, Don is not allowed to use the bathroom or eat in the dining room. While Tony is provided reasonable sleeping arrangements, Don has to contend with fleabag motels, not permitted to venture into the streets, whether they are in “sundown” towns or not.
It soon comes to light that Don is also gay. At one point, the pianist cries out in anguish that he is “not black enough, not white enough, not man enough,” demanding to know, “What am I?” To drown out the pain and confusion, he consumes a bottle of Cutty Sark every night.
In the car, Tony listens to Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, popular black singers unfamiliar to Don. “These are your people!” shouts Tony in disbelief. He, of course, has never had any exposure to “high-brow” classical and jazz music. In Birmingham, Alabama—where singer Nat King Cole had been attacked on stage in 1956—Don is barred from eating with the same guests who he will later be entertaining. Repulsed, Don and Tony flee the stodgy ballroom, ending up in a lively black club, where Don’s performance—a spectacular combination of classical and jazz—brings down the house.
During their journey, Tony—and Don—are shocked by the sight of oppressed black sharecroppers working in the fields.
Meanwhile, the pianist helps Tony, in Cyrano-style, formulate letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). When Tony signs the letters, Don good-humoredly quips that it’s “like putting a cowbell at the end of Shostakovich.” As the relationship between employer and employee matures, a tender friendship is cemented.
Green Book is a decent, intelligent film, graced by the performances of its outstanding leads. It appears that Farrelly, the creator of juvenile comedies like Dumb and Dumber, The Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber To, has become more thoughtful.
More should be said about the remarkable Don Shirley (1927-2013) a classical and jazz pianist and composer. Born in Florida to parents of Jamaican descent, Don, a prodigy, started to learn piano at the age of two. At nine, he was invited to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music.
In the course of his career, he performed with the Boston Pops, the London Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony, also working with the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra. He wrote symphonies for the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. At Milan’s La Scala, only he, Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter have performed as soloists.
Shirley composed organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin and a symphonic tone poem based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Obtaining a doctorate of Music, Psychology and Liturgical Arts, Don spoke eight languages fluently and was a talented painter.
For its humanistic, anti-racialist message—the elementary notion that white and black people can get along—Green Book has been well received by audiences. Predictably, for the same reason, it has also aroused hostility from those who live and breathe identity politics. Typical headlines originating from that crowd read: “Green Book Is a Poorly Titled White Savior Film,” “Green Book is Another Unneeded White People’s Guide to Racism” and “Is Green Book ‘Woke’ Enough?”
Richard Brody in the New Yorker opines: “The essential subject of Green Book isn’t the honoring of cultures, identities, and differences but their effacement in the interest of an ostensibly color-blind neutrality, a bland common ground of an accepted mainstream (in pop and high culture alike) of cuisine, entertainment, friends, family, and personal gratification…
“This grotesquely ahistorical and impersonal view honors a mode of racial enlightenment—a ‘both-sides’ enlightenment—that’s as regressive as it is universally salable.”
A. O. Scott in the New York Times writes: “Every suspicion you might entertain—that this will be a sentimental tale of prejudices overcome and common humanity affirmed; that its politics will be as gently middle-of-the-road as its humor; that it will invite a measure of self-congratulation about how far we, as a nation, have come—will be confirmed.”
This is reactionary nonsense. Green Book has its limitations, but it’s a fascinating, consequential episode. It’s shameful that these upper middle class critics cannot see beyond their racialist noses.