Melody Cooper Green Book Piece
GREEN BOOK: Seeing Color
by Melody Cooper
When I first heard about the film GREEN BOOK, I was very excited, especially when I learned it had been cast with two of my favorite actors, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. In addition, the subject matter was something that, as a Black woman, I knew about. I'd done research on the Negro Motorist Green Book in the past, and imagined the many ways it could be handled in a film, and how the necessity for a guide to keep Black travelers safe and alive in a world that was hostile to us could powerfully be told on film.
So, I was definitely disappointed to learn that Don Shirley's family was unhappy with the way Dr. Shirley was portrayed in the film, and that they had not been consulted. I also had mixed feelings about the film being based on a book by a White man about his relative in a reverse Driving Miss Daisy kind of story. It seemed like the same old approach offered so often before: Black history told through the lens of White characters. By now, I know that Green Book is not really about the Green Book, as I had hoped, nor its essential importance and the legacy of how it saved lives and gave peace of mind to Black folks. For that, we'll have to wait for another writer and director, and a different film. In Peter Farrelly’s film, the Negro Motorist Green Book is essentially a prop in a White Man's story of how a Black man helped him evolve.
I want to point out here that for all my misgivings, the production design and cinematography are strong, and the performances by Mortensen and Ali are excellent.
The film does, in fact, start completely from a White point of view. But even focusing on the premise of driver Tony Lip learning from pianist Dr. Shirley, I found the script lacking. The first scene is in a White nightclub, and through the next seven scenes, we are still with the White characters. We learn the details of Tony Lip's life and background, and the secondary characters in his world who impact him. I started wondering, will we get the same for Dr. Shirley? Seven scenes of his world, his family and friends, his base line before he meets Lip?
My issue is not solely about number of scenes or amount of time on screen, so much as focus and point of view. When we learn about racism, civil rights and its impact on people, Hollywood usually does it through the lens of White people, usually liberals, or liberals-in-training. Even the pianist Don Shirley's entrance is designed to be a foil for Lip’s and the White audience’s expectations. It's all Gold and Dashiki and African Horns and Carved Wooden Throne Blackness. It's not to say that the moment didn't happen in real life, but the film's choice to introduce the pianist to us in this way sets us up for less complexity, and refuses to open up the story to let us see this Black man outside of the eyes of White people. Don Shirley had a life amongst Black people, even if it was strained or awkward, but we don't see the complexity of it. It’s given to us largely in drive-by moments. After his first scene we return right back to Tony Lip's world and that's a squandered opportunity. This is an adaptation, and the screenwriter and director had the chance to open up the story and let it hold both men's realities.
It would have redeemed the film in my eyes if it had also steeped us deeper in Shirley's world. But throughout the film, we mainly see him with Tony Lip, with Whites who hire him, Whites who treat him badly, Whites who want to harm him. My problem with the movie is the same problem I have with Hollywood when it comes to Black stories ... they are still too often told from a White perspective. If you're White, the point of view might just seem normal, or simply Lip's story. However, since Dr. Shirley is a key part of this story, the approach falls short.
We later see Tony Lip on the road and playing craps with Black workers who are given about 30 seconds of screen time and are also essentially props. The Italian guys in the Bronx diner get more fleshing out. It's a lost opportunity for us to not see the reaction between them and Dr. Shirley, the class division, the cultural divide. We get this very briefly in a Black motel scene, buy quickly leave it to return to Lip. These interactions, if allowed to play out a little, would humanize and particularize the Black people in the film and have more resonance than Tony telling Dr. Shirley he should know the music of his people.
The fried chicken scene was painful to watch, especially since Dr. Shirley's family insists that Shirley had eaten fried chicken before, and didn't need a White man to show him how to do it. The scene is strained cuteness and glib. In scenes like this, the movie constantly tells us what to think and feel. It doesn't reveal, it tells. The only revelation comes in the performances which struggle against the material to create depth and subtlety, which the actors achieve gloriously.
I was fit to be tied to see the first openly on-camera racist moment for Shirley be walked in on mid-scene by Lip. So we don't see how it develops or how it effects Shirley. We see how it effects Lip and the White men in the bar. Shirley feels like a prop and beside the point. That choice was frustrating, unnerving and left the scene drained of dramatic effect and feeling staged. If we had seen Shirley walk in and the tension build until we think his life is in danger in an establishment he "doesn't belong in” (the reason why the Green Book exists!), then Lip's entrance would be a more powerful counterpoint. The scene where we find Dr. Shirley handcuffed in a public bath house, eliminates the crucial moments (and potentially beautiful scene) leading up to why the police do this. I did however love the interaction between Lip and Shirley in the hotel later.
When the car gets a flat, there's a moment of us seeing sharecroppers. But yes, you guessed it, only ever so briefly, and yet again, Blacks are silent props in a story that does its best to keep Black people in their place, in the background. We serve food. We clean up. We play music. We dance. What we don't do is have much in the way of even a small scene that's about specific Black folks, although a Black bar scene late in the film comes close. It doesn't detract from Lip to allow the Black world to be fuller and more specific and to exist without him on screen. In fact, it would set the story and the main characters in a deeper, more meaningful relief against a richer reality.
The sad truth is that the kind of racism depicted in the film still happens now. I was in South Carolina a few years ago at the Spoleto Festival performing in an OBIE Award winning show. The wealthy White southern family that hosted a welcome party for our large, nearly all-Black cast as we were decked out in our best evening wear, had us greeted by “The Plantation Singers” lined up on a spiral staircase and dressed as mammies. The women looked humiliated to have to perform like that for the actors from New York. It took the fun out of the evening and reminded me of a scene in Green Book. Fifty years later and some things don't change. Unfortunately, that includes the p.o.v. of films about racism.
Melody Cooper is a playwright and screenwriter who won the 2018 Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at the Urbanworld Film Festival, and was recipient of the Tangerine Entertainment Fellowship at Stowe Story Labs as well as fellowships at AMC Shudder Labs, the Writers Lab and NY Stage & Film.