To see / 25 February 2019

The Politics of Non-Confrontation

A Review of Green Book

So far, the film Green Book has produced a lot of noise. Last night, it was awarded with an Oscar for best picture and best original screenplay, whereas Mahershala Ali is the winner for best supporting actor. The film was nominated for the Golden Globes and other prestigious awards as well. But is this fuss justified, or it is just another “film about racism” told with a silencer and sweetened to please broader audience? Does it have revolutionary potential, as any true work of art should or is it just another box office feature trying to earn as much as possible, not caring for the very world we live in, in which everything that is Other should be fenced and kept out of sight. Maybe my expectations were extremely high, so high in fact that they couldn’t have been fulfilled (the moral of the story: never trust Facebook sources), but if one discusses racism today, then it should at least be honestly (in the artistic sense) and thoroughly thought-through.

Honestly, the movie is a failure in several aspects, but mostly in its need to be subdued to a generic structure, i.e. dramedy. That mixture of comedy and drama, in which a serious story is filled with comic elements, really does not work in this specific case. It was an excellent generic model back in 1989, though, when Driving Miss Daisy had entered cinemas for the first time. This classic featuring the marvellous Jessica Tandy and the equally brilliant Morgan Freeman won four Oscars and enjoyed great critical reception, national and worldwide. But that was in 1989, when reality was quite different. The world economy was heading towards a brief, but important Golden Age, the Berlin Wall had been dismantled, and the Warsaw Pact had fallen apart. The future seemed bright, so the story of a gentle friendship with some racial tension between a Jewish grey-haired woman and an African-American driver in post-World War II America was a promise of a better world. Today, when Trump and his lookalikes are the decision-makers, a film of this type has to have, at least, a certain ironic note, or has to be more cautious with those twists and turns in the script that merely perpetuate the status quo.

There is a certain naivety and mildness to the starting points of the two main characters in Green Book. On one side we have this robust and ill-tempered, but kind-hearted family-man, the bouncer Tony Lip, who is looking for a job of any kind, just to save himself from working for gangsters, and on the other we have this well-educated, vain, frightened classical and jazz piano player and artist, Dr. Don Shirley, who is conducting a tour of the so-called Deep South just to prove that an African-American is able to perform there. So, Tony Lip is going to be a chauffeur and a bodyguard for Dr. Shirley on that tour. In this way Green Bookoverturns the archetypal situation portrayed in Driving Miss Daisy, where the African-American is the driver and the Caucasian is the boss. In winter of 1962, it was still almost impossible. But as the story develops, we understand that what should be seen as a revolutionary act of a brave artist is overshadowed by a personal relationship that doesn’t reflect the world. Quite the opposite, the story is told only from one perspective –very white and heterosexual and traditional. The motives for the tour are never discussed by Dr. Shirley, only retold by his fellow musicians, who are also Caucasian.

The film is based on many stereotypes about Americans of Italian ancestry. First of all, they are ripped of their individuality. They do everything together, they are loud, they are overprotective, they eat constantly and too much, they are poor, but proud and warm, caring and gentle at the same time. They bear the image of kind savages and the change that Tony Lip will go through is one of cultivation. He will lose part of his collective identity to become an individual. In other words, he will become more American than Italian. Dr. Shirley will undergo the same change, albeit the other way around. He will become more aware of the life of commoners, he will get in touch with his own family (in the film, this is merely indicated), but his revolutionary tour is left untold. Although we have more than a few scenes in which the position of an African-American is clearly shown within the Deep South, we don't have the perspective of the victim nor the perpetrator. What we are left with is the perspective of the bystander who will not get involved unless he is directly implicated. And that is where the film drops. It turns out to be just another antiracism film that fails to deliver the message, that in the end even reverses the order into its natural way. Towards the end of the film, the exhausted Tony sleeps on the backseat of their Cadillac, and Dr. Shirley drives, as ‘it should be’. And when, at the very end, Dr. Shirley is accepted into the family of kind-hearted savages for Christmas dinner, the melodramatic turn is in full swing and order is restored.  The family over the individual, the Caucasian over the African-American, and the man over the woman. How convenient!

There are some points in the story that are left undeveloped. For instance, the question of Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality, which was obviously too much for the story to carry. Or the tour itself, which fades completely, although it has some motivational function. But the most important question is whether a non-African-American can tell a story about racism in America, or elsewhere. For instance, the film Get Out (2017, directed and written by Jordan Peele), which was aesthetically much closer to today's audience than the retro-looking Green Book treated the question of racism from the perspective of an African-American and was thus more intensely related to the topic. Although it also had some less-than-subtleties, thanks to the generic faithfulness to horror comedy, it was more realistic - even though it told a surreal story about a body snatch conspiracy by members of the Caucasian upper middle class, who are stealing bodies of athletic African Americans and instilling inside them the souls and minds of dying Caucasians. This fantastic plot gave the story the possibility to explore the prejudices about African-Americans and the dynamics of racism more deeply. When, at the end of the film - after killing all members of the abductionist’s family - Chris finally escapes, this occurs with the help from his friend Rel, also an African-American. The proverbial cavalry is thus ‘black’ because only an African-American can save a fellow African-American. 

In that sense, Driving Miss Daisy is more truthful. Not only because Miss Daisy is a woman, but also because she is Jewish, which does not stop her of being racially prejudiced toward Hoke, her driver, and to preserve the relationship of employer and employee, or better of master and servant throughout her whole life. The blind eye of the oppressed (a Jew and a woman) which leads her to be the oppressor is at the very core of the dramatic conflict in Driving Miss Daisy and in Get Out, because Chris kills all the members of the family, although he does not have to. But in Green Book, we don't have the critical rethinking of the positions of the two protagonists. They simply inhabit their positions as they come, and by doing so they perpetuate the status quo. 

By giving the most influential award to Green Book, the American Academy again showed us that it does not understand the dynamics not only of some of the deepest problems of our time, but also that it is always just an exponent of the mediocre taste which promotes the politics of non-confrontation. 


Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into Albanian and Slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.