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How Progressives Have Gotten Green Book All Wrong

Tom Hall: Don Shirley confronted the real power people in society, not the people who worked for, and obeyed the instructions of the ruling class.
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The Green Book

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali

What an amazing year for film. There are two films out named Green Book, simultaneously. One is an execrable bit of racist drivel, calculated to appeal to the worst impulses of a white, male majority of Oscar voters.

I haven't seen this Green Book, so I can only describe it from the descriptions in the press. It tells the story of a white man who saves a black man, while teaching him how bad black America really is, as happens so often in popular culture.

I saw the other Green Book. In the film that I saw, a wealthy, educated, talented black musician, planning a tour of Southern states, hires a white man he has heard is a thug to be his driver and protector. The black man accepts the white thug for what he is. That is what the black man wants as he travels through cities and towns in the throes of violent backlash to the Civil Rights Movement rolls.

The black man has a comfortable life of respect and admiration in New York and Europe, based on his musical performance abilities. He could easily have bypassed the violence wracking Southern cities and states. He could have donated money to other people to help the cause. But he did not.

He chose to put himself into the thick of the fight, as did so many black men and women of the time. While some sat in at lunch counters, or marched into the teeth of police dogs, Don Shirley confronted upper class white people with his personal example giving the lie to their characterizations of lazy, uncivilizable, intellectually inferior black people.

Don Shirley confronted the real power people in society, not the people who worked for, and obeyed the instructions of the ruling class.

Don Shirley gave the lie to the people who owned the lunch counters at which other black people sat in, and to the people who made the laws and policies and gave instructions to those who handled the police dogs. Don Shirley confronted the real power people in society, not the people who worked for, and obeyed the instructions of the ruling class.

And because he was an intelligent black man, well aware of the risks he might confront while on a driving tour of an inflamed South, he hired a white man to accompany him. He hired a white man with a reputation for violence to guard him on his tour.

The white man didn't understand the black man. He was racist, he didn't have any exposure to black culture or to the "high culture" of the New York world in which Don Shirley lived. For him black people were an "other," whom he had been raised to think were inferior and largely irrelevant to his life.

This is a huge contrast to the Oscar winning film, as I understand the critics. In that film, a sophisticated, worldly white urbanite takes a culturally illiterate black man and teaches him about black culture. The white man exposes Don Shirley to fried chicken. In his sophistication, he knows that fried chicken is "black food", as if what Colonel Sanders sold in white neighborhoods was what black "Mamas" made for their families. As if no one in white America ever made fried chicken. And so he must teach Don Shirley about "black food,"

The Green Book

And he must teach Don Shirley about black music, "real" black music, not the stuff that concert halls are filled with - not the stuff Paul Robeson sang.

In the Green Book that I saw, Don Shirley disdained popular music with the same "superiority" that characterized any number of white musicians and critics of the day. It wasn't black or white nearly as much as "high" vs. "low" culture. But when it was appropriate, he could whale a piano in bar.

In the Green Book that I saw, Don Shirley wasn't a fan of fried food and the oil such food leaves on hands and clothing. In the Green Book that I saw, Don Shirley taught his white driver that littering the countryside with fast food waste isn't civilized.

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In the Green Book that I saw, it was the black man who taught the white man that nonviolent resistance can be more effective than violent reactions. When his white driver provokes an arrest by two Southern white cops, Don Shirley quietly makes a 'phone call that humbles the entire police department. The black musician teaches both his white driver and his white police tormentors (and maybe film viewers?) that access to power beats local bigotry.

In the Green Book that I saw, Don Shirley is derisive about his white, thug driver's language. He rewrites his driver's letters home to wife and family. But he is not a perfect modern progressive. While rewriting his driver's letters, Don Shirley does not need to tell the driver how illiterate he sounds. He does not need to lecture his driver about racial discrimination or the Civil Rights Movement. He allows his driver to observe and learn.

He has, apparently, more respect for his driver than the driver has for his passenger in the other Green Book people are talking about.

The Don Shirley trio traveled in a parade of three chauffeured cars, one for each musician. One of the other musicians, a white Russian, tries to enlighten Don Shirley's white driver about the sacrifice Don Shirley is making and the risks he is taking with a tour through the South. One of the white cops open the white driver's eyes, at least a little, by demanding to know why a white man is the driver for a black passenger.

The other Green Book, the one that won the Oscar, is apparently filled with scenes in which the white driver/savior figure teaches valuable life lessons to the needy black man. It sounds odious. The version that I saw fits more in the tradition of Driving Miss Daisy, or Lillies of the Field, or even Blazing Saddles, in which black men show that they are at least the equals of most of the people with whom they interact.

The Green Book that won the Oscar competed against an interesting field. One film taught that black empowerment might be found in segregated isolation and black people's innate ability to create magical technologies. This seems to build on the white fear that, given the opportunity, black competitors will dominate whatever they try, like sports, music, even politics. Another film touted the heroism of an indigenous housekeeper for a well-to-do family, mostly from the employer's viewpoint. Spike Lee reminded us that black and white men can work together, usually with resulting danger to good-ole-boy culture, with some belly laughs along the way.

A central problem with Spike Lee's film, Black Klansman, and with the Green Book that I saw (not the Oscar winner) is that they each had a hopeful but not triumphal viewpoint. Each film looked at a time in American history when race relations were much worse than they are now. Each film showed black men opening the eyes of white men. Neither film tried to proclaim that it had the solution to our national race problem.

Both films acknowledge that we still have racial problems in this country. And both imply that our national problem isn't going to go away simply through individual feel-good incidents. Perhaps that is enough reason to vote against either as an Oscar winner. Too many want simple answers and instant fixes. That makes the Green Book that I saw a scary movie.

For black people, no fix to our racial problems will be an instant fix. They have been down in America since 200 years before our Revolution. For many white people, any fix will be too threatening, and thus too fast. But Black Klansman and Green Book are not fantasy films. They remind us that we have real problems, but that real solutions are available to us.

What angers and threatens so many critics of Green Book is precisely that the Don Shirley character teaches his white driver so much, while leaving society so segregated. One of the messages is that it is white people who need to learn. Even progressives, at least too many of them, know that they know it all now, and have nothing to learn but much to instruct on.

When someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says that the Green New Deal is only a proposal, an outline, rather than a detailed legislative plan, that threatens to impose the obligation to work, to figure out what will work, to make the Green New Deal a sensible reality. That shifts the burden back onto folks who would prefer that Bernie, or Elizabeth or Kamala simply tell us what the answers are.

But being told what the answers are, is the Republican Party way, the alt-whitey way. If Progressives are to really change the world, they must shift their focus from leaders to We the People. Instead, too many are adopting the Republican Party's follow-the-leaders approach.

Green Book repeats the message preached by Lillies of the Field. Right wingers were offended in 1963. "Progressives " are offended now. That's not progress.

tom hall

Tom Hall