Lívia Szélpál, senior lecturer, Department of English Literatures and Cultures, Institute of English Studies, University of Pécs (PTE), completed her MA in American Studies and History at the University of Szeged and earned a Ph.D. at Central European University in Comparative History of Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Her research interests include American Studies, the history (including the unconventional histories) of the USA, the issue of history on film, urban history, modern and contemporary American culture. Email:
Abstract: Green Book is a 2018 American drama film directed by Peter Farrelly. Set in 1962, the film tells the true story of a tour of the Deep South by Jamaican–American classical and jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Italian-American bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who worked as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard. The film has been criticized for advancing a white savior that maintains racial stereotypes. My paper aims to focus on the film and intends to, firstly, scrutinize on the genre of white savior narrative. New York Times writer Wesley Morris characterized Green Book as being a "racial reconciliation fantasy" common to Hollywood films. Secondly, it aims to focus on the controversy behind the Green Book since critics accused the film of ignoring the very object it was named after the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide by Victor Hugo Green. The atlas guided African-American travelers to find “safe” hotels and restaurants across the segregated Jim Crow South. Thirdly, the paper deals with the function of the Green Book in constructing American national identity by analyzing selected editions of the Negro Motorist Green Book published from 1937 to 1966 and digitized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. The central theme of this paper is to highlight that the Green Book maps the territorial limits of African American freedom and it was also a guide of black self-reliance.
“Apollo Gave him a Golden Lyre.”
Don Shirley: Orpheus in the Underworld, 1956
“To be woke is to see and say what has gone unseen, unspoken.” These are the words of Tomi Adeyemi for the definition of woke as an awareness of issues concerning social and racial justice. Conceived in a very similar context, the American drama film Green Book (2018) directed by Peter Farrelly is also focusing on the racial and social injustice of the Jim Crow period in the US (1936-1967). The executive producer of the film is Octavia Spencer, who also featured in The Help (2011), Get on Up (2014), Black or White (2015), and Hidden Figures (2016); she is also the first black actress to receive two consecutive Oscar nominations (Nolfi 2018). Set in 1962, Green Book presents the true friendship story of Jamaican–American classical and jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (1927-2013) (played by Mahershala Ali) and the Italian-American security guard Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (1930-2013) (embodied byViggo Mortensen), who worked as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard on their tour to the Deep South. Besides various acclaims, the film has been criticized for advancing the white savior narrative by being at the same time a crowd-pleaser movie that ultimately maintains certain racial stereotypes. Green Book was released and produced by Universal Pictures in 2018, the year when former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem in support of the rights of people of color and protest against police brutality. Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D) used her position to keep history from repeating itself. Lawrence stood in solidarity with victims of sexual violence everywhere and remembered women like Recy Taylor, whose unspoked story of rape and injustice was the subject of Oprah Winfrey’s powerful Golden Globes speech in 2018. This was also the year when Sterling K. Brown became the first black man to win the award for outstanding male actor in a drama series at the SAG Awards, as well as the first black man to win a Golden Globe for a TV drama. Furthermore, Dr. Michael Lindsey, the director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and a Constance and Martin Silver Professor of Poverty Studies at NYU, challenged to “change the narrative” for black boys and men through an educational podcast (“Addressing Achievement Gaps”). Plus, they organized informative series of conversations showing that education is one of the most effective means in the fight for equality (Baragona, 2018). On teh background of these events, Green Book, as both a film and a cultural product of a given historical era, represents a real microcosm reflecting the “imaginative articulation of U.S. experience and ambiance,” on the domestic scene and in the international arena as well (Cristian 2014).
My paper aims to focus on the interplay between reality and imagination the film addresses and intends to first scrutinize the genre of the white savior narrative—mostly with the background information of New York Times writer Wesley Morris, who characterized Green Book as a “racial reconciliation fantasy” that is common to many contemporary Hollywood films (Morris 2019). Secondly, it aims to focus on the controversy behind other racial issues represented in Green Book. Many critics accused the film of ignoring the very object it was titled after, namely the Negro Motorist Green Book (henceforth, NMGB as a differentiation from the movie Green Book). This was a travel guide for colored peoples was compiled by Victor Hugo Green (1892-1960) and his wife, Alma Green (1889-1978), and came out during the Jim Crow era in the United States (“The Green Book” The New York Public Library Digital Collections). The atlas guided primarily African-American travelers to find so-called “safe” hotels and restaurants in the region in which they aimed to travel. At that time, the guidebook was also one of the less known symbols of racial oppression and also a means for the Civil Rights Movement; its aim was to be a crucial lifesaving pack for black people in avoiding uncomfortable situations and was important for their physical protection against lynchings in the Deep South. Besides NMGB there were many other travel guides for black people, for example the Travelguide, Cook’s Negro Travel Guide, Grayson’s Guide, Hankley & Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide, and The Negro Traveler (Kennedy 19). However, the NMGB are the most known among them due to its visibility and availability in the digital collections of the New York City Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Thirdly, the presentation deals with (3) the function of the NMGB in constructing black political identity by analyzing selected editions of the series published from 1937 to 1966 and digitized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. The key argument of this paper is to highlight that Green’s travel-guide maps the territorial limits of African American freedom and it was also a guide of black self-reliance, an important symbol of the civil rights movement.
I. The Genre of White Savior Narrative
It is hard to define the genre of the film. The movie can be interpreted as a classic road story, a buddy movie telling the tale of Bronx bouncer Tony Vallelonga, who in 1962 was hired as chauffeur and bodyguard by Dr. Donald Shirley, a gay black composer undertaking a concert tour as a mission through the Deep South (“Green Book” Metacritic). In that job, Vallelonga is given a copy of the NMGB and consults it at various times as he learns about the various racist discriminations (Wilkinson 2019).
Moreover, the movie Green Book can be interpreted as a historical fiction film and is about the relationship between two real-life people: Dr. Don Shirley (Donald Walbridge Shirley, dr.) and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Frank Anthony Vallelonga Sr). Shirley was an educated man and visited the Catholic University of America as well as the University of Chicago and earned doctorates in music, psychology, and liturgical arts (Harris 2019). He was a classical piano prodigy and began playing piano at age 2. By 9, he was studying music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music (Harris 2019). He performed regularly at Carnegie Hall and worked with many distinguished orchestras. However, due to the racist power structures of the Jim Crow Era, “he couldn’t be a classical pianist because of the color of his skin. You can hear the pain in his voice. You can see his anger. He was angry because he was disrespected,” as Jasmin Shirley, one of his relatives, said of him (Harris 2019).
Vallelonga was born in 1930 to working-class Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx. He worked as a bouncer, a maître d’, and a chauffeur, and he was hired in 1962 to drive Shirley on a concert tour through the Jim Crow South (Chow 2019). They spent one and a half years together on the road—though it’s condensed to just a couple of months in the film—learning about each other’s worlds. Vallelonga would later become an actor and appeared repeatedly in The Sopranos (Chow 2019).
About the context of the film making, Andrew R. Chow writes in his article that Tony Vallelonga and Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013. Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son then proceeded towards the screenwriter Brian Currie and director Peter Farrelly, who agreed to the movie project (Chow 2019). According to an interview with Nick Vallelonga in TIME, Shirley gave his blessing for making a movie about the friendship but told him to wait until he died (Greenspan 2019). Farrelly, as the director, was also a surprise since the Farrelly brothers were specialized in making comedies such as Dumb and Dumber (1994) or There’s Something About Mary (1998). In 2017, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen agreed to play Shirley and Vallelonga, respectively (Chow 2019). Interestingly, Mahershala Ali played in three other color-conscious movies like the Free State of Jones (2016), Moonlight (For his performance in this drama, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2016), or the Hidden Figures (2016). Green Book premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2018 received mixed reviews It was then released in the United States in November 2018, by Universal Pictures (Buchanan 2018).
Despite its early success with audiences and crowd-pleasing character, many critics were less enthusiastic, arguing that the film falls into the trap of white savior films. However, the film won the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award (Chow 2019) and the National Board of Review titled it the best film of 2018 (Tapley 2018). As Andrew R. Chow cites Monique Judge who wrote in The Root that the film “spoon-feeds racism to white people.” In her review for Shadow and Act, Brooke Obie calls the movie a “poorly titled white savior film” that brought to a focus white people in the life story of black people (Obie 2018 “‘Green Book’ Is A Poorly Titled”). She describes the film as a “reverse-Driving Miss Daisy” and criticizes the fact that it leaves out a lot of Shirley’s story in favor of bracing Vallelonga up as some sort of hero. The New York Times argued that the movie has “very little that can’t be described as crude, obvious and borderline offensive” (Scott 2018). Tambay Obenson in the IndieWire described Shirley’s character as a “Magical Negro,” whose role in the film was to change a white man for the better. Matthew W. Hughey coines the term “Magical Negro.” This archetype is patient, learned, and usually has some sort of magical power. His highest role is to assist the white protagonist to overcome some major character flaw (Obenson 2018). The film was accused of telling the story from a white man’s version of a black man’s life (Chow 2019).
Matthew W. Hughey defines the notion of white savior films by arguing that these movies construct and fortify both the category of white racial identity and a normative pattern of interracial interaction (Hughey 18). This is also present in the Green Book movie. Although, the movie makes an attempt to challenge the colorblind paradigm and raises awareness of the injustice of the Jim Crow Era and the racial segregation it is still in the trap of controversies, which this subchapter aims to highlight.
The Jim Crow system emerged after the end of the reconstruction period and lasted up until the Civil Rights Movement. The so-called compromise of 1877 led to the end of the federal government’s commitment to the efforts of social reconstruction in the Southern states (Ciment 110). It is unknown precisely who Jim Crow was, as Isabel Wilkerson states, but there are several stories about the origins of the term. It came into public use in the 1830s after Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white actor, popularized a song-and-dance routine called the “Jim Crow” in minstrel shows across the country. He wore blackface and ragged clothes and impersonated the movements of a handicapped black stablehand, he had likely seen in his travels singing a song about “Jumping Jim Crow.” Rice died penniless of a paralytic condition that limited his speech and movement by the end of his life. However, the term came to be used as a pejorative for colored people and was applied to the laws to segregate them from the mid-19th century (Wilkerson 40-41). According to Wilkerson, the first such laws were passed not in the South, but Massachusetts, “as a means of designating a railcar set apart from black passengers“ (41). During the 1880s and 1890s, as Ciment emphasizes, a series of Supreme Court decisions virtually repealed all of the civil rights laws of the Reconstruction. In an 1883 case, the Supreme Court eliminated the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case practically legalized segregation since the Supreme Court decided that governments (local, state and even on the federal level) could practice segregation, as long as they provided “separate but equal” facilities and services to both races. In reality, it had nothing to do with equality and by the turn of the century, the number of lynchings and violence against black people increased heavily (Ciment 118). From the 1920s a dramatic demographic transformation, called the Great Migration, took place in the US, a huge number of black people moved to the northern cities by the 1960s (Ciment 127-28). Wilkerson calls the Great Migration “a silent pilgrimage” within the borders of the country, and would not end until the 1970s and set into motion radical changes in the country, it forced the South the set aside its “feudal caste system” and when the “whites-only” signs came down, the all-white schools opened up and everyone could vote (Wilkerson 8-9). Alma Duke also arrived in New York as part of the Great Migration from the South. She married Victor Hugo Green, and the couple moved to Harlem, New York which was the center of black arts and culture in the period of the Harlem Renaissance. They lived in an apartment at 580 St. Nicholas Avenue and later his travel agency office was located at 200 West 135th Street in Harlem, New York (“Harlem’s Victor Hugo Green’s”). This is the historical background of the Green Book movie and the social problem of racism in the US has not healed to this day.
The white savior trope (def. Matthew W. Hughey, C.L. Glenn, L.Cunningham) frames the movie, namely the reaffirmation of the postcolonial ideology that a white man is needed to save black men showing their dependent and helpless position. In the Green Book movie, Tony not only saves Don Shirley’s life but saves his spirit and mental health by inviting him to his family for Christmas dinner and giving a hug to Tony’s wife at the end of the movie.
The trajectory of the United States racially stratified society – shifting from slavery to emancipation, to Jim Crow racism, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the post-Civil Right Era – reflect that the problematic and unsettled race issue is still persistent in the United States. Moreover, it is a decisive factor in political struggle, where racial identities are not only socially constructed but connected to ongoing social, economic, and political structures of society (Smith 780-781). The way black characters perform their socially constructed role within the film serves to observe whether colorblindness or color-consciousness is evident. Another feature of colorblind ideology is the interracial buddy blueprint, as Smith highlights, which uses fictional friendship to ignore institutionalized racism (783-784). Hollywood films reflect the racial and social order in which they are made (Smith 791). The film Green Book is an example highlighting the pervasiveness of racial inequality, as well as, how this film still maintains a colorblind framework. According to Hughey, this cinethetic racism reflects the contemporary colorblind perspective on race, which an overt “manifestation of racial cooperation and egalitarianism with latent expressions of white normativity and antiblack stereotypes” (543). Moreover, the narratives of these films subversively reaffirm the racial status quo and relations of domination by reflecting mystified forms of contemporary racism rather than serving as evidence of racial progress (Hughey, “Cinethetic Racism” 543).
The white protagonist Tony is an Italian-American man from the Bronx. He is hesitant to work for Dr. Don Shirley after meeting him and realizing that he is a black man. Tony accepts the job because of the money offered and is not interested in helping Shirley. Later, Tony understands the messianic purpose of Shirley’s tour to the Deep South when it is explained to him by Shirley’s fellow musicians of the trio by arguing “it takes courage to change people’s hearts” (Green Book 01:06:30-01:07:27). One of the profound messages of the film that Tony learns from Shirley in the jail is “you never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity”(Green Book 01:28:24-01:29:04). Tony’s character development is explicitly and didactically represented throughout the movie. From a racist man, Tony turns to be a friend of Shirley out of his free will. The final scene of the movie shows Shirley eating Christmas dinner with Tony and his family. Therefore the film was criticized that it shifted the focus from the representation of the racial injustice and segregation to Tony’s personal character development. Interestingly, one of the manifestations of the colorblind attitude in the movie is Tony’s surprised reaction when he faces racism and police aggression. As the movie goes on, Tony does not seem to know the harsh realities of the Jim Crow Era, for example, when he is astonished by the deplorable conditions of the motel under the Jim Crow sign of “colored people only” where Shirley was supposed to sleep as a black person (Green Book 00:54:23-00:55:27). Though Tony argues that he knows life and experienced many things while working as a bouncer in a club, this contradicts his perception of racism. Another example is when they hit the road with Shirley, they use the NMGB which specifies places only for colored people, and Shirley repeatedly transgressing the written and unwritten rules of the Jim Crow System, meanwhile Tony seems to be confused by the racist behavior of white people in the South. This color-blinded frame is repeated by representing the black character in a passive role. Tony appears to have the final word instead of Shirley, for example, when he decides to leave the hotel where Shirley performed but was not allowed to have his dinner.
II. The Green Book Controversy
The controversy of Greenbook lies in the complexity of the color-blindness and color-consciousness mix of its narrative. The movie seems to be color-conscious on the surface level however it reflects a certain amount of uncomfortability to engage in a deeper discourse about the past. Green Book presents the unpleasant racist features of US history with humor and emotion. Mahershala Ali in an interview when asked about the film argued that “discrimination is much more intelligent now” (Judge 2018). Meanwhile, Harry Belafonte, who knew and worked with Don Shirley in the 1960s welcomed the movie and congratulated the movie makers (Judge 2018). Why is the Green Book movie controversial? The film was criticized for many different reasons. Firstly, its title seems to be misleading since it gives The Negro Travelers’ NMGB little screen time or analysis. What are the historical NMGB about?
As a WWI veteran and then a Harlem-based letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office for over 40 years, Victor Hugo Green used his network of contacts throughout the country to gradually develop lists of motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses that would welcome African-American patronage. The early editions focused on New York City where he initially sold them for a quarter at ESSO gas stations. His wife, Alma D. Green, appears to have actively supported and been involved in this venture from the start, eventually taking over as editor when Victor stepped away from that role (Ramsey & Searles 2020). According to Harlem World Magazine, Green reviewed hotels and restaurants that did business with African Americans during the time of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the United States. Green published 15,000 copies each year. Similar guides had been published for Jewish travelers, who also faced discrimination (“Harlem’s Victor Hugo Green’s”).
As African-Americans began to own automobiles to be free of discrimination, segregation, and insult they suffered by public transportation, they were restricted by racial segregation in the United States. In the de jure and de facto segregation in the South, dominated by the separate but equal doctrine, the freedom of travel was illusionary and required separate facilities for African Americans, and many motels and restaurants in northern states also banned their presence (“Harlem’s Victor Hugo Green’s”). As the business developed, Green opened his reservation bureau and tour services and printed a variety of articles, such as tips about vacationing in locations from New York and Chicago to the Bahamas (Ramsey & Searles 2020).
Though the film is titled Green Book, it appears only a handful of times. Publicist Brooke Obie pointed out that when it is seen in the film, it is a prop mostly handled by Vallelonga (Chow 2019). Moreover, it gives the impression that this travel guide was necessary only in the South. However, racial discrimination took place in the northern states, as well. Yoruba Richen, documentary filmmaker emphasized that Jim Crow happened all over the country. As Richen argues in “The NMGB were created by a New Yorker, with listings in New York. [There were] places in Harlem where black people were not allowed to go to. So this was something that was everywhere” (Giorgis 2019). Richen’s documentary film The Green Book: Guide to Freedom (Impossible Factual, 2019) distributed by the Smithsonian Channel challenges the racist paradigm and is a response to Farrelly’s movie on the NMGB. It traces the guide’s history and its ongoing significance as an indispensable response to white-supremacist violence and as a community-building tool. (Giorgis 2019). However, in my opinion, the greatest merit of the film is to draw attention to the untold story of the NMGB. As I view it, the issue of the NMGB is present in the film as a cultural code, a subversive symbol of the Civil Rights Movement just like Shirley’s mission with the music tour to the Deep South. In the third part of this paper, I will outline the historical NMGB and its impact on the Civil Rights Movement, which gives a different meaning to the seeming invisibility of the NMGB. In this interpretation, traveling to the deep South bears the symbolic meaning of the road to the unfinished project of black emancipation in the twentieth century by highlighting the root of this social problem, on the contrary to the route directions of the underground railroads. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar states the film explains indirectly “that there is no “safe” place for blacks because the entire country — from Tony’s kitchen in the Bronx to a concert hall in Georgia — is infected with racism, whether it’s overt, passive or institutional” (Abdul-Jabbar 2019).
Secondly, the film was criticized for portraying the two men as broad stereotypes. Tony is depicted as a Bronx tough guy with rude honesty, bad behavior, and occasional violence. Meanwhile, Shirley is depicted as an arrogant, meticulous, edgy person who is correcting Tony’s speech and grammatical mistakes and behavior and losing his personality. One of the arguments against the filmmakers that they did not consult with Shirley’s family and made his portrayal inaccurate (Bruney 2019). However, one of Shirley’s former friends Michael Kappeyne views the portrayal differently. Kappeyne also produced Shirley’s last album, Home with Donald Shirley, in 2001 (Chow 2019). Kappeyne says that during their conversations, Shirley would tell him stories of his life, including the trip portrayed in Green Book. According to him, Shirley was a very complex man and the complexity of his character was authentically portrayed by Mahershala Ali, as Kappeyne describes him: “He got the inner anger, the sense of solitude, the complete dignity he always had and his interest in helping people” (Chow 2019).
The film portrays Shirley as a man who finds his place neither in the society nor in the black community and he is uncertain about his identity. Tony knows more about black music than Shirley. Moreover, his character is not accepted by his people and lives in isolation without a supporting family (Bruney 2019) and refers only to a sole estranged brother with whom he is not keeping any connection (Green Book 00:49:53-00:50:56). As Shirley gets at the climax of the film, “I’m not accepted by my people, because I’m not like them” (Green Book 01:32:35-01:33:13). However, in reality, Shirley had three living brothers in 1962 and according to his family, he was in regular contact with them. Moreover, the family argues that Shirley was deeply involved in the black community. He also participated in the Civil Rights Movement and was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan, and an attendee of Dr. King’s March on Selma (Bruney 2019). A New York Times article “Who Was Don Shirley? ‘Green Book’ Tries to Solve the Mystery” highlights that Shirley was a brave man who undertook his tour of whites-only theaters and venues out of civic obligation after Nat King Cole had been brutally assaulted onstage in Birmingham, Alabama. Moreover, Shirley was a Steinway Artist for nearly forty years. It is told that Shirley was discouraged from pursuing a career in classical music by impresario Sol Hurok, who told him America was not ready for a black classical pianist. Instead, Shirley switched to jazz, inundating his music with a unique classical impact and becoming famous in the 1950s and 1960s through his work with the Don Shirley Trio. An intellectual and unconventional, Shirley lived alone for decades in one of the historic bohemian apartments above Carnegie Hall, where Shirley’s primary companion was “Bess,” a black Steinway Model D concert grand (Smith “Alone with Bess”).
Thirdly, Shirley’s family responded critically to the movie. Shirley’s only living brother, Maurice writes in a letter sent to media including Black Enterprise that the movie, “The Green Book” is NOT about MY brother, but about money, white privilege, assumption, and Tony Lip!” (Lynn 2018). Moreover, the family blamed Nick Vallelonga and the creative team for not consulting them about the screen-play. Dr. Maurice Shirley, Donald’s brother, labeled it a “symphony of lies” in an interview with Shadow and Act (Obie 2018 “How ‘Green Book’ And The Hollywood Machine”). Moreover, Obie cites Dr. Maurice Shirley’s wife, Patrica who claimed that Shirley and Vallelonga were never friends and “It was an employer-employee relationship” (Obie 2018 “How ‘Green Book’ And The Hollywood Machine”). This statement contradicts one of Shirley’s interview cited by Andrew R. Chow in the TIME: “I trusted him implicitly,” Shirley stated of Vallelonga. “Tony, not only was he, my driver. We never had an employer-employee relationship. We got to be friendly with one another.”
Fourthly, as publicist Andrew R. Chow highlights, the press tour of the movie faced critical backlash and resulted in controversial issues on its authenticity and racial politics which undeniably gave bad publicity to the film. (1) During a screening in November, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Vallelonga, said the N-word in an attempt to show how norms have changed since the 1960s. He quickly apologized, and while Ali accepted his apology, many critics online did not (Harris 2018). In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, in which he publicly apologized for using the word, Mortensen admitted,
In making the point that many people casually used the ‘N’ word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place, in 1962, I used the full word. Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again (Feinberg and Kilday 2018).
Moreover, (2) Nick Vallelonga apologized for one of his previous islamophobic twitter comment and directed a personal apology to Ali, who is Muslim. “I am also sorry to my late father who changed so much from Dr. Shirley’s friendship and I promise this lesson is not lost on me,” he acknowledged, “Green Book is a story about love, acceptance, and overcoming barriers, and I will do better” (Michallon and O’Connor 2019). (3) Furthermore, Farrelly acknowledged and apologized for sexual misconduct during the production of one of his previous films, There’s Something About Mary (Gonzalez 2019). Despite the many criticisms and controversial issues surrounding the movie, the film got five Golden Globes nominations and left with three wins in 2019, including Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, best performance by an actor in a supporting role in any motion picture (Mahershala Ali) and best screenplay – motion picture (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly) (Green Book Golden Globe Awards). Besides Green Book received five Oscar nominations and won three, including best motion picture of the year, best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Mahershala Ali), and the best original screenplay. The film got two other nominations for the best performance by an actor in a leading role (Viggo Mortensen) and the best achievement in film editing (Patrick J. Don Vito) (The 91st Academy Awards). Ironically, the film is about the concert tour of the ’Don Shirley Trio’, the character of Vallelonga was nominated for the best performance by an actor in a leading role award. However, if one ignores the film, and looks at Shirley’s career, it is clear that his music is more resilient and interesting than any Hollywood cliché (Iverson 2019). The tale of interracial male friendship told from the viewpoint of Vallelonga and the Academy Award was not well received by some, who argued Green Book is a ’white savior’ narrative (Whitten 2019).
Undeniably, one of the movie’s greatest controversies lies in its portrayal of racism. Violence, lynchings, discrimination, and segregation were the physical manifestation of the Jim Crow laws and system of etiquette. The most extreme forms of Jim Crow violence were lynchings, and the historical NMGB were essential guides for survival. According to Lewis and Lewis, contrary to popular opinion, historically Jim Crow Laws did not originate in the South. In the urban North, interracial intimacy was uncommon, and most whites were committed to the term of white supremacy (xii). These conclusions also suggest that white supremacy was further institutionalized by what historian Jennifer Ritterhouse names ’racial etiquette’ – a series of social practices imposed by whites on blacks to maintain their power-relations (xviii). The Supreme Court decision of The Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) declared racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional and the aftermath events made civil rights part of the national discourse (xxvii). The 1960 election of John F. Kennedy is considered to be a turning point in the history of the Jim Crow system. In his inaugural address, Kennedy affirmed his support for the Brown vs. Board of Education and the desegregation of schools experienced some progress. However, resistance and violence reached a high peak. By 1962, which is the era of the Green Book movie, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina still did not have integrated schools and the registration of war veteran James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, after a Supreme Court decision, exploded into a riot that killed 2 and injured 375 people (xvii-xviii). President Kennedy as forced to dispatch the army to restore order and ordered U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure Meredith’s safety (Foner 848).
The film has also critical defenders, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote an essay “Why the ‘Green Book’ Controversies Don’t Matter” by arguing that filmmakers are the interpreters of history and not its chroniclers unless they are making a documentary. He highlighted that Green Book interprets historical events to reveal a truth relevant to today:
Resist those who would tell you to know your place. This is true whether it’s about race, gender identity, religion, nationality, body type, or anything else that hateful and irrational people use to shame or hinder others in their pursuit of happiness (Abdul-Jabbar 2019).
Therefore, following Abdul-Jabbar argument, the controversy highlights the movie’s point that we can learn from the past to put us on a more aware path for the future.
In this context, the historical NMGB are more than a series of travel guides but include information about international travel for black people and a symbol of the civil rights movement which deserves a deeper analysis that will be the topic of my further research from the European perspective within the field of American Studies.
III. A Short Historical Outline of the Green Book
The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division has published digitized copies of twenty-one issues of the NMGB, dating from 1937 to 1966-1967. The title of the Green Book changed in time the following way: The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-1951), The Negro Travelers’ Green Book (1951-1959), The Travelers’ Green Book (1960-1961), Green Book (1962), Travelers’ Green Book. International Edition (1963-67). These digitalized versions prove to be excellent primary source materials for understanding the mechanism of the Jim Crow Era. As the introduction to the digital collection writes, the Green Book was only a local publication for Metropolitan New York in 1936 and developed into a national issue to cover the US as the response for copies increased by 1937 (“The Green Book” The New York Public Library. Digital Collections).
However, the NMGB were not the only black travel guide series in existence; at least six others were on the market while it was in publication. What was the secret of its success? It was due to several factors, importantly, its recognizable style and design had a great impact on its favorable position on the market. Moreover, Victor H. Green also had an aid at his disposal that publishers of the other guides did not: a ready-made network of other postal employees. (“Green Book Historic Context”). Green’s national network of fellow postal employees supported his enterprise and solicited advertising from black-owned businesses along their routes. Besides, Green’s relationship with James A. Jackson, an African-American marketing executive at Esso, today’s Exxon has to be mentioned. Green and Jackson agreed to publicize and market the NMGB in a mutually beneficial process: Green printed an article in the 1939 edition about Jackson’s appointment at Esso, and Jackson secured that all Esso stations throughout the country sold the NMGB (“Green Book Historic Context”). Finally, as Candacy A. Taylor, the author of Overground Railroad: the Roots of Black Travel in America (2020), emphasized that the sites advertised in the NMGB transformed the story of black mobility and strengthened the self-determination of black business owners and travelers by supporting black entrepreneurship (Taylor 2017). Both black and supportive white-owned businesses ran advertisements in the Green Book editions, it was supported by them, selling a diversity of products in addition to travel services (Ramsey & Searles 2020). Ron Warnick cites Candacy A. Taylor by emphasizing that half of the eighty-nine counties that Route 66 crossed were sundown towns, namely not allowing black people after dark when the guide first was published. Over the years, the NMGB published special editions about railroads, airlines, international travel, and the National Park System. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NMGB published only two international edition collections. Ironically, as Taylor points out, in less than five years after the law was enacted, at least half of the black-owned businesses closed. This fact would mean that something, as despised as segregation, expeditated a stronger sense of unity in the black community also in the economic sense (Warnick 2020). Why were the NMGB essential for black travelers?
According to Candacy A. Taylor, being black and traveling during the Jim Crow Era was potentially life-threatening. The NMGB series, as an essential road trip companion, saving the lives of black travelers from violence and lynchings, therefore proves to be the untold story of the African American experience of travel. Victor H. Green never became a rich man and those business owners who were listed in the NMGB were brave enough to take a stand against racial segregation. Owing a car granted a way to subvert and transgress Jim Crow Laws and gave a certain illusion of freedom that they did not have in most public places.
As stated by Jay Driskell, in his article “An atlas of self-reliance: The Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1937-1964)” the freedom of traveling for African Americans proved illusory. Jim Crow Laws restricted the liberty of black travelers. This coincides with Mark S. Foster’s statement that many black automobile owners felt a sense of escape from segregation when they got on the open road. However, black motorists encountered serious challenges, for example, figuring out local racial customs and etiquette in unfamiliar locations since segregation practices varied considerably in every region and city. Not only the threat of lynching and atrocities but securing decent food and lodging could be a problem (Foster 141-142). The Negro Motorist Green Book served as a useful directory of hotels, restaurants, businesses, and other services that were safe for African American travelers. NMGB promised to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments, and to make his trip more enjoyable” as the introduction of the 1949 volume states (“The Green Book Vacation Guide: 1949”).
As one recent research of 2020 shows, the NMGB maps the territorial limits of African American freedom. According to Cook, Rosé, Jones, and Logan, the largest number of NMGB establishments were found in the Northeast, while the lowest number was found in the West. Moreover, the Midwest had the highest number of NMGB establishments per black resident and the South had the lowest (Cook, Jones, Rosé, and Logan 1). Apart from mapping the territorial limits of freedom, the publication and distribution of NMGB served also a way for black self-reliance. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these businesses listed in the NMGB represented a source of black economic power that could be used to construct the desegregated US. A number of these black business leaders joined the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to confer their economic power into political power and use that to end the Jim Crow System. They used their money power, for instance, to fund the operations of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or pay for the buses that sent thousands to the 1963 March on Washington (Driskell 2015). Moreover, as Driskell states, the NMGB publication was never meant to be an explicitly political document, it narrated the economic infrastructure of the black freedom struggle. Victor and Alma Green formulated their view on racial reconciliation as their manifesto in the 1948 edition:
There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment (1).
Following this argument, at least one article in each edition is dedicated to the emergence of black political identity or the social progress of black people. It encouraged the support of the black industry and it was the first black business directory not only a travel-guide. Benjamin J. Thomas articulated in his article of the 1938 edition, “The Automobile and What it has Done for the Negro:”
The automobile has been a special blessing […] Take for instance 25 years ago, the average young colored man was either doing porter work, bell hopping, running an elevator, or waiting on the table, and the average wage at that time was 5 USD per week. The same young man as soon as he learned to operate an automobile, instead of paying him 5 USD per week, he would begin at least than 15 USD per week, and as he progressed and became a mechanic his wages would be railed to 25 USD until today, […] therefore taking man out of servant class and placing them in the mechanical class” (11).
After the World War II, the 1947 edition of the Green-Books included two articles, “Money For Negro Colleges” and “Negro Schools and Colleges in the United States” dedicated to the topic of education, racial reconciliation and desegregation of schools as a response to the GI Bill (Blakemore 2019). According to Jack Ciment, the law did not overtly advocate discrimination against blacks but the GI Bill did not ensure equal benefits including college tuition, low-cost home loans, and unemployment insurance. Moreover, it did not close the higher education gap between whites and blacks. Many African Americans returned home to the lives of poverty and “institutionalized racism, which made taking full advantage of the GI Bill difficult” (Ciment 144). More blacks used their GI Bill benefits for the trade of vocational training, or to finish high school. Just over one percent of black attended college in the 1940s that percentage had tripled by 1950 (Ciment 144). The NMGB gave voice to this social problem as it follows:
The educated Negro was once a rarity. His numbers are increasing year by year, and his contributions to the arts, science, and education steadily gain wider and juster recognition for his abilities. From these, we all gain, regardless of color. And as we mutually put a proper, unprejudiced estimate on the contributions of all races to the common good, we move surely closer to the goal of living together in harmony (3).
In the 1960s, the NMGB openly welcomed the Civil Rights Movement and editor ’Janus’ Novera Dashiell wrote with approval in the 1961 edition of the impact of sit-ins across the country (“Green Book Historic Context”). According to Eric Foner, the sit-in movement reflected the increased frustration at the slow pace of racial change (846). The Greensboro sit-in was the beginning of political activism and social change in the 1960s. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated the Freedom Rides. This meant “integrated groups traveled by bus into the Deep South to test compliance with court orders banning segregation” (847). In the 1961 edition, Dashiell argues
Every age across recorded time had its minority group pinioned in the talons of prejudice. Each race had its torch-bearers. History shows the rewards gained when a race made its own struggle against the ebb and flow of local and national passions. No one esteems freedom given or sought without it being earned. […] 1960 has been quite an eventful year for Negroes in both domestic and foreign affairs. Our young generation with their successful sit-in demonstrations have prodded the older generation to greater effort in the struggle for civic identity. […] In this budding year of 1961, we pause again to say with modest pride, we are celebrating our Silver Anniversary. Twenty-five years of continuous growth and realization of the aspirations of its founder and publisher Victor H. Green.” (4) [emphasis mine].
By the mid-1960s the Civil Rights Movement had reached its peak and the NMGB also developed into a conscious tool for the movement. Here, it is important to mention C. Vann Woodward and John Hope Franklin’s study on black history since 1865. They highlighted that in the 1960s there were writings on black history by blacks who were not scholars by profession. However, they reflected in their writings the wide spectrum of black thought of the day (139). As I view it, this coincides with the activity of the NMGB in the 1960s.
The 1962 edition printed a two-page article by editor Novera C. Dashiell titled “Project…Fun”. I have found in particularly interesting and up-to-date that in this 1962 article, she articulated the civilian need and right for recreation and highlighted the importance of maintaining good mental health in that turbulent era of tensions and fear for which travel is essential. As she argues:
Tensions created by the conflict between East-West ideologies and resultant threats of nuclear warfare have caused varying degrees of behaviorism in our nation. President Kennedy has told us that our generation and possibly the next must expect to live on the edge of fear rather than bow to the will of demagogues. To survive, we must be constant to our national goals and ideals on all levels. […] recreation and travel serve as a safety valve to our collective sanity. A vacation now can be regarded as not only necessary but of therapeutic value. The exchange of travel should also create a better understanding between the peoples of the world. Fear is an emotion we experience only of the unknown (4). [emphasis mine]
As the NMGB evolved, the 1963-64 international edition of the NMGB published a two-page article entitled “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking, “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking” with a state-by-state summary of civil rights laws. The article lists the 1962 civil rights laws of each state and provides a “summary of various state statutes on discrimination as they apply to public accommodations or recreation,” (2) for example, in Alaska: “Anti-Jim Crow law in recreational facilities. Violators are subject to criminal punishment (court proceedings)” (2). The article provides a useful list of states with different sanctions e.g. in Alaska, California law bans Jim crow in recreational facilities, violators are subject to criminal punishment, meanwhile in Montana and New Mexico there are no specific sanctions. Moreover, the issue advertises, among others, Langston Hughes’ work titled Fight for Freedom. The Story of the NAACP (102).
The final, 1966-67 volume reported about the 1964 Civil Rights Act in an article “Civil Rights: Facts vs. Fiction”. As the article states:
a new bill of rights for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. Public Accommodations: Effective at once, every hotel, restaurant, theater, or other facility catering to the general public must do exactly that. Thirty-one state laws, already in effect have even stronger provisions (2).
Moreover, the article lists proudly the major factors and associations which contributed to the achievements of the civil rights movement and fought for minority rights such as The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the National Urban League, the Congress on Racial Equality, the Students Non-Violence Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Association (2). Undeniably, the NMGB served also as a guide of black self-reliance by giving voice to the emerging political identity and an important symbol and vehicle of the civil rights movement.
The present study focused on the issues the Green Book film addresses and scrutinized the genre of white savior narrative and its relation to this film and explained the historical background of the movie, the Jim Crow Era. The paper outlined and highlighted the controversy behind the movie. Finally, the paper focused on selected articles from the historical NMGB available in the digital collections of the New York City Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. One of the key arguments of the essay is that NMGB portrayed the territorial limits of African American freedom and it was also a guide of black self-reliance, an essential tool of the civil rights movement.
The plot revolves around the topic of Jim Crow segregation by presenting the friendship of two-man, Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga. The story reveals the Janus faced society of the US. The setting is mostly on the road, deep into the Southern states. The NMGB as the manifestation of the segregation is visible in the Jim Crow etiquette that penetrates the whole movie. The film brings into limelight the historical NMGB by its seeming invisibility. The historical NMGB are more than a series of travel guides but include information about international travel for black people and a symbol of the civil rights movement which deserves a deeper analysis that will be the topic of my further research from the European perspective within the field of American Studies.
Green Book is an enjoyable mainstream film, a form of entertainment with a sense of history by keeping the events as human and real as possible. Despite all of its inaccuracies, I enjoyed the movie as an authentic portrait of the human experience. I agree with Monique Judge, this film comes up with a starting point for white people to wake up (Judge 2018). We all have to do what we can to live in a just society.
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