For the last couple of months many have celebrated the movie ‘The Green Book’ at the Golden Globe Awards, the Critics Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and soon at the Academy Awards. The accolades for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen come amid criticisms about the accuracy of the movie, the manner in which African-American concert pianist Don Shirley was portrayed and his relationship with Tony Vallelonga, his Italian-American driver, during a concert tour in the 1960s through the Deep South. The movie has been called racially tone deaf.
I don’t want to get into the debate. Really, I don’t. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I had never heard of the ‘Green Book’ until I was an adult, long after it was useful and needed. That doesn’t mean my family didn’t use it. I just don’t know. We traveled a lot, but primarily to visit family in the mid-West and in the North. Driving was typically done in one day, no lodging necessary and we always packed food for the trip. My sole hotel experience as a young child was a family trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. On that trip, I only remember seeing African-Americans at the motel where we stayed. ‘The Green Book’ may well have guided my Dad in knowing where to stop for gas or even in knowing of the motel where we stayed. If he used it, he didn’t talk about it. Like I said, I knew nothing about it until it came up in conversation with a family member.
My mother had undertaken a genealogical study of her family. When her 950-page tome was printed, instead of calling it The Descendants of James and Keziah Charity of Charles City County, Virginia, its official name, the family has always referred to it as ‘the green book’ referencing the bright green color of its cover. On one occasion, someone mentioned ‘the green book’ and quickly added, “Not the original one, I’m talking about Aunt Edna’s book.” That was my prompt to ask, “What original one?” Not until then had I ever heard of Victor Green’s reference guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book.
Just as African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson was unknown to me until I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I had never heard of Dr. Don Shirley until I saw the movie, ‘The Green Book.’
Some younger black viewers or white viewers may be unaware of the degradation suffered by African-American performers, talent sought after to play or act for white audiences, but still not able to eat in the local restaurants or at the performance venues. The threats to black performers in the South and the manner in which they had to live while performing was portrayed in the movie. I know that the greats of the ‘40s and ‘50s who came to my hometown of Richmond, Virginia—names like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington—could play in the white venues, but when it came time to eat or sleep, they were in Jackson Ward, one of the all-black enclaves in Richmond, in hotels and restaurants on Second Street. The movie even references a 1956 event in which Alabama native son, crooner Nat King Cole (father of Natalie Cole) was about to perform in Birmingham when members of the Ku Klux Klan came on stage and beat him with clubs in front of an all-white audience.
So many of the contributions of African-Americans to this country are rarely revealed, seldom studied, hardly taught. This potentially flawed, but beautifully-acted, movie has revealed parts of history, American history, to many who never knew it. I am conflicted. Do I want an accurate portrayal? I do, but those who could attest to accuracy—Shirley and Vallelonga—are both deceased and the movie notes it is ‘inspired by,’ not a documentary.
I want to celebrate the revealing of another hidden figure of African-American history and culture. I want to celebrate Mahershala Ali’s powerful portrayal of an African-American virtuoso who had been lost to history. I want to recognize that ‘The Green Book,’ the movie with its imperfections and ‘The Green Book,’ the guide, reflect the reality of separate, and unequal. Together they—the book and the movie—have promoted another conversation about racial injustice. That is good, good for all of us.