What Hollywood Communicates Through the Movie Green Book: Race, Ethnicity, National Identity, Gender, Culture and Class in 1962 America
As a core tenant of supranationalism Daniel T. Rodgers proclaims, “A nation which conceives of itself in exceptionalist terms is fated to spend at least as much of its popular historical energy imagining everyone else’s history as in writing its own.”i This aphorism is essential when it comes to understanding David R. Jansson’s application of Edward Said’s theory of “Orientalism.” According to Said, “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”ii Jansson explains that, for this dynamic to work, the West must be uniquely positioned as separate and distinct from that of the Orient. This apposition among geographical areas is what undergirds “difference”: a delineation of the “other” external to the stateiii which stirs as Said argues, “elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, mind, destiny, and so on.”iv Jansson expresses “internal orientalism” as the opposite poles of a binary: a spatial, regional or geographical area internal to a state which is defined by its distinct cultural identification that lies outside the hegemonic norms or values associated with the state itself.v As James C. Cobb emphasizes, “Typically, the creation of any sort of group identity, be it regional, national, ethnic, or otherwise, has required … a ‘negative reference point,’ against which it may be defined in stark and favorable contrast.”vi Jansson focuses largely on W.J. Cash’s influential work, The Mind of the South (1941), from which he argues, “Portrayals of the South such as Cash’s denote [it] as the repository of a set of negative features (such as poverty, racism, violence and backwardness), and that … these undesirable characteristics are excised from the national identity.”vii
Jansson describes Cash’s innate and interminable “southern” features, “Violence, intolerance … attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values…,”viii as not only southern features, but national characteristics which exist throughout the United States as a whole. He declares that by disregarding the long and tortured history of cultural and geographical neglect through the advantage of a hegemonic yet illusory sense of preeminence the U.S. in no way ameliorates the historical conditions that create an internal orientalism but only exacerbates them. Jansson argues, “This [mythic] national identity [of purity, righteousness, modernity and justice for all is misleadingly] reproduced through the daily activities of the academy, media, political system, entertainment industry and other institutions.”ix
Similarly, Joseph Crespino focuses on the state of Mississippi as the misconceived epitome of “southern-ness” in the mind of the nation. He defines Mississippi “exceptionalism” as a racialized extreme, a uniquely insular, violent and authoritarian society within a society that was separate and distinct from the U.S. in the 1960s. He describes Mississippi’s most noxious image as a metaphor of a “closed-society”x conversely assessing the nation itself as a metaphor of “Mississippi-Writ-Large”: The state of Mississippi and its long history of ugly racism, bigotry, violence, discrimination and segregation is intrinsic to its regional character in an abhorrent way, but when compared to that of the nation’s long history of brutal racial intolerance as a whole, it in no way stands alone.xi
This essay evaluates the frameworks of internal Orientalism, the closed-society and Mississippi-Writ-Large as depicted in Hollywood’s award-winning film Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018) and its representations of a geography of racism; southern vs. national identity; place and space; and the us vs. them distinction. These frameworks similarly contain and maintain the edifice of a mythic national identity as a consequence of the “othering” of the American South. This work also examines, through a 21st century Hollywood lens, race, ethnicity, gender, culture and class in 1962; the societal representations and anthropological interplay, which mold contemporary popular perceptions, woven within this film’s illustrations and interpretations.
Green Book starring Mahershala Ali (as Dr. Donald Shirley) and Viggo Mortensen (as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga) was written by Nick Vallelonga (et al.), the son of the real-life “Lip” who long desired to tell the story of his father’s and Don’s unique experience.xii Inspired by true events, the film starts out in 1962 Bronx, New York, focused on the character of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a white-working-class husband and father of two who is employed as a bouncer at the renowned nightclub the Copacabana. Tony’s character is that of an ethnically clichéd northeastern Italian-American: a hard-working family man, uneducated and unsophisticated; prejudicial if not racist; uncouth and ill-mannered; violent when need be; good with his fists and not afraid to use them. Tony’s nickname “Lip” is a moniker that he wears proudly – it was given to him by his childhood friends due to his distinct rhetorical abilities to “bullshit” or persuade anybody anywhere of anything. Due to these innate gifts Tony is sought out, interviewed and hired by Dr. Don Shirley an a-typical African-American character as far as 20th century perceptions go: Don is refined, well-educated; well-read; cultured and urbane; a globally recognized extremely skilled musician. Green Book is something of a dark comedy, a cultural and phenotypical odd couple hit the road together in a 1962 semi-segregated and racially charged nation at large. Only one year prior, in 1961, Black and white protestors, known as Freedom-Riders, rode buses throughout the American South demonstrating against segregated “whites-only” public toilets, lunch counters and bus terminals – their struggles were met by gruesome and overt violence from white separatists.xiii
Thus, Don is in need of not only a chauffeur but a strongarmed troubleshooter who is willing and able to escort him on a two-month concert tour for elite-white audiences through middle America, down across the segregated South and ultimately straight into the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The actual “Green Book” on which the film is titled was named The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-1967) and was the brainchild of Victor Hugo Green an African-American postal worker in New York City who saw the need for a “safe-haven” publication: a list of hotels and motels throughout the continental U.S., in the Jim Crow era, that were disposed to providing accommodations to African-American travelers.xiv The book is central to the film’s storyline in that it provides Don’s chauffeur Tony a specified list of locations, per their journey, where Don can spend the night without fear of being arrested for violating racial codes or social mores within a particular jurisdiction – this racialized paradigm is fundamentally thematic throughout the film.
The movie opens with a sequence of scenes that help the viewer to solidify the character of Tony “Lip.” He is seen at the Copacabana urgently summoned to a brawl over “a broad” where Tony forcefully pulls a man out of the club, throws him in the street and knocks him unconscious. Next, we see Tony returning home to his humble abode only to find numerous family members vigilantly watching over is petit wife Dolores (tenderly played by Linda Cardellini) who is shown to be genteel enough to provide two African-American workmen cool glasses of water on a hot summer day which Tony promptly and wincingly tosses in the trash upon their departure – clearly demonstrating a subtle yet albeit northern racist character.xv
The first encounter between the two protagonists is a telling one. Don receives Tony at his posh apartment perched above Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. This scene is set up to jar the viewer by drawing a sharp contrast, contrary, to mid-20th century societal norms per not only race but class. Don sits suspended upon a throne dictating the required duties necessary to fulfill the position, i.e., driver, personal attendant, valet and baggage handler. Tony, feeling off set or crestfallen by this dynamic from the very start, indignantly responds:
…I ain’t no butler … I’m not shining nobody’s shoes. You need someone to get you from point A to point B? You need someone to make sure there’s no problems … and you going through the deep South … there’s gonna be problems…xvi
This dialogue helps to highlight nationally imbedded themes of not only an exceptionalist South set apart from national norms but a “geography of racism” that is unique or innate to the southern character as purported by Cash, “violent, racist, intolerant … cruel, unjust … and close-minded,”xvii which undergirds the “us and them” distinction that contrasts the nation with the South, as argued by Jansson, strengthening archetypal American virtues.
Don, desperate for a driver that can fulfill his needs, cajoles Tony by calling his wife Dolores directly asking permission to take her husband away for two long months and she consents. In delineating gender roles, the writers shrewdly include this 1950s/60s working-class trope emphasizing the wife “as the boss.”xviii With the two men on the road headed toward Indiana we get our first hint of “othering” northern style – demonstrating in racial terms how Black culture was viewed as monolithic. Tony, bewildered by Don’s lack of knowledge concerning Black pop music, flips through radio stations querying him, “How could you not know this music? Chubby Checker, Lil’ Richard, Sam Cooke, Aretha — these are your people!” Don sports a nervous smile giving viewers their first oblique indication of a self-conscious sense of distance from “his own people” due to nothing other than class, as A.O. Scott, The New York Times film critic observes, “[his] hauteur masks a deep loneliness,”xix which will become more evident as the film unfolds. Next, Tony finds himself arguing with a stage manager at a university campus in Indiana as to whether the piano they have is up to snuff – Tony demands a Steinway (which is written into Don’s contract), the stage manager glances smugly and says, “Come on, what’s the difference — these coons can play on anything.” Tony slaps the man hard across his face promptly ending the debate. He quickly becomes, as Scott points out, “a kind of ‘white-savior,’ intervening to shield his employer, when he can, from white people who have no such obligation.”xx This scene demonstrates Jansson’s counterview to the prevailing mythic national-identity, illuminating overt racial prejudice in the North.
The film employs a series of segments depicting cultural stereotypes and class distinctions. Although Don is perturbed, Tony is elated to purchase Kentucky Fried Chicken “in Kentucky” for the first time in his life, “I bought the bucket so you could have some.” Don crossly responds, “I’ve never had fried chicken in my life.” The writers lay out, with a 21st century irony, a litany of clichés concerning bigoted white attitudes in the 1960s toward African-American culture generally and their food and musical tastes in particular. As Adolph Reed states, “[throughout American history] … race essences generally were thought to include – in addition to distinctive physiognomy – values, attitudes, and behavior.”xxi When Tony pulls over beside a cotton field in North Carolina, for an engine check, one is taken aback not only by the riveted Black “pickers” working the field in amazement to see a Whiteman chauffeuring a Blackman in 1962 America, but also Don’s own discomfort with his status or position given their reaction – his sense of estrangement is confirmed.
Arriving at their first show in the South (an elegant plantation-home) for an audience of elite-white southerners, Don is not only dejected by the southern-fried-chicken prepared in his “honor,” but he is also shown an outhouse if he should need a restroom facility. Seven years after Rosa Parks sat down to stand up against injustice on a Montgomery Alabama bus in 1955,xxii African-Americans were still unable to share restroom facilities throughout the South. Don, guided by the Green Book, is forced to stay at run-down Blacks’ only motels finding himself face-to-face with poor African-Americans – the class distinction is palpable.
Subsequently, Tony is urgently called by Don’s bandmate to a local “shit-hole-dive-bar” where a group of southern “rednecks” have Don physically pinned to the bar after having roughed him up, bloodied his face and threatened him with a knife. Tony appears, with a gun behind his back, demanding they let him go while the rednecks, portrayed as unhindered, violent and degenerate, wildly mock the two of them:
REDNECK #1: This boy’s gonna get what’s coming
to him … you ain’t got no say!
LIP: Maybe. But, whatever happens, I’m
gonna put a bullet right in … that thick skull of yours.
This encounter exemplifies what Cobb describes, “was the white South captured so brilliantly by W. J. Cash [as] … a savagely racist, intellectually stunted, emotionally deranged society…”xxiii Tony’s white-savior characteristics peak in this scene. The rednecks backdown and the two men walk out of the bar as Don quips, “Does geography really matter? … If I walked into a bar in your neighborhood…, would it be any different?” Farrelly smartly sustains a stark contrast visually in place and space while, at the same time, using this sequence to tacitly acknowledge violent racism in the North as referenced in Crespino’s Mississippi-Writ-Large metaphor.
Thus far, and in the scenes that follow, “The South is [largely] represented as a landscape of violence … intolerance and hatred, corruption and complicity … [contrary to the] mythical American national identity.”xxiv Now, decisively in the deep South, the “southern mentality” of racism is offered as a common occurrence through the eyes and experiences of the film’s protagonists. Walking through Macon Georgia, Tony sees an attractive suite in a shop window that he thinks would be perfect for Don. The shopkeeper swiftly explains that Don, being Black, is not permitted to try anything on without paying for it first – the two men, disgruntled, swiftly exit the shop.
Don’s pensive awkwardness manifest throughout the film is made tangible, given the fervently oppressive cultural mores of early 1960s America – which 21st century observers may find revelatory at best and/or tyrannical at worst. Tony appears in a Macon, GA YMCA restroom where Don is being humiliatingly detained by local police for engaging in a consensual liaison with another man. The writers demonstrate, unequivocally, for the first time, that Don is not only a Blackman, but a “gay” Blackman coexisting in a highly racialized and repressive epoch. Thus, Don’s inclinations throughout the storyline, e.g., helping Tony write tender and meaningful love letters to his wife; his artistic view of the world in general and his sensitivity toward beauty in particular, so conveyed, are essential to his nature – which, although cliché, will make sense to contemporary audiences. Back at the hotel, after having bribed the two police officers into letting Don go, Tony warmly (and unexpectedly) projects an empathy and/or benevolence toward Don, hitherto not seen in the film, by submissively stating, “I know it’s a complicated world out there….”
Driving along a desolate Mississippi road at night in the pouring rain the duo is pulled over by two white patrol officers that explain to Tony, “He [Don] can’t be out here at night. This is a sundown town.” Meaning that Black folk are not allowed outside after dark. The patrol officer asks Tony the origin of his last name and he responds “Italian,” the officer retorts, “Oh, now I get it. That’s why you driving this boy around… you half a nigger yourself.” Tony spontaneously punches the officer landing himself and his boss in a Mississippi jail. Don is reluctantly permitted his one phone call, as per the law, and immediately reaches out to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington, DC, who contacts the governor who in-turn contacts the sheriff – the two men are promptly released. This scene exemplifies the binary of internal orientalism as defined by Jansson. By juxtaposing the South, the image of Robert Kennedy represents an intervention on behalf of justice and the American way – a righteous national image and superior national character that contrasts and supersedes any and all relationship with the lesser of the two.xxv
As tensions build between the duo, Don’s class and racial identity crises alluded to earlier in the film are exhibited for all to see. Class distinctions are made clear as Tony claims to be more in touch with “Black culture” than Don given his elevated status, “You travel around the world and live on top of a castle and do concerts for rich people! I live on the streets … my world is way more blacker than yours,” with this statement the writers interpose, through a racialized lens, the 20th century stereotype of a “racially afflicted underclass,” i.e., whites equating Black culture, nationwide, with poverty more than anything else.xxvi Monique Judge, African-American film critic for The Root, labeled Tony’s declaration as “clueless and offensive,”xxvii however, after having had the first bi-racial African-American president, Barack Obama, in what is purported as a “post-racial era,” the writers skillfully word Don’s poignant response in a way that 21st century audiences (Black and white) can not only understand, but relate to:
Yes, I live in a castle! Alone. And rich white folks let me play piano for them, because it makes them feel cultured. But when I walk off that stage I go right back to being another nigger to them … that is their true culture. And I suffer that slight alone … I’m not accepted by my own people … I’m not like them either! So if I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, and I’m not man enough, what am I?!
If viewers were wondering why Don drinks himself to sleep every night, this scene clarifies his deep emotional wounds per “detachment and disconnectedness” from not only his race but his class. In the subsequent and final scenes, the writers focus primarily on race and space emphasizing regional difference to underscore the “mind of the South” through a North/South distinction. Don finds himself at the final show of the tour, a Birmingham hotel, where he is to perform that evening, again, for an elite-white southern audience. The maître d’hôtel attempts to rationalize to Don the fact that, although he is a distinguished guest, he, unlike Tony and his bandmates, is not allowed to eat among the other guests in the dining area – it goes against the hotel’s “long standing tradition.” The maître d’ clarifies southern culture and racial attitudes, “…this is just the way things are done down here.” As in Crespino’s closed-society metaphor, this representation exemplifies the South as a land apart “different” and “out of step with the rest of the country.”xxviii The two quickly find themselves on the road headed back to the “civilized” North.
As Jansson states, “The US is composed of many regions, which have been defined in various ways … and for one of these regions [i.e., the South] to serve as an internal “other” it must be distinguished from national standards.”xxix Consequently, in a heavy snowstorm the two men are, again, pulled over by a patrol car (intended to heighten the viewer’s fear of southern authority), but this time it happens to be a white Maryland State Trooper who kindly assists Tony while he changes a flat tire stating (to both Tony and his African-American boss), “Okay… be careful, gentleman. Merry Christmas.” Contrary to the maître d’ and the white southern cops, the northern State Trooper represents “the archetypal American … tolerant … enlightened and modern,”xxx accentuating “national identity.” Lastly, we see Don outside Tony’s apartment door where he is greeted by a bearhug from Tony and a kiss on the cheek from his wife Dolores – who lovingly thanks him for helping her (semiliterate) husband write his weekly letters to her. Although his large-Italian-American family is seated, around the holiday dinner-table, stunned at the fact that a tall Blackman is standing in their foyer, Johnny (a relative of Tony’s) exclaims, “Well, come on, make some room, get the man a plate.” Everyone laughs and welcomes him in – the writers climax with an “all-is-well” 21st century “post-racial” Hollywood finale, again, reinforcing a mythic-national-identity.
Ultimately, Green Book is much more than an “on the road” dark comedy. The movie permits 21st century audiences to view race, ethnicity, culture, gender and class – plus regional and national identity – through the eyes of its protagonists in 1962. Depicted only one year after Martin Luther King Jr. moved from Montgomery to Atlanta to devote more time to the SCLC and the freedom struggle,xxxi Farrelly could have communicated a story which included the hard-fought battles, trials and tribulations, of African-Americans throughout the civil rights period in which the film is set but instead decided to leave those issues and events principally aside. In fact, Judge laments, “The instances of racism in this film [are] mild compared to the actual racial terrorism black people experienced then and continue to experience.”xxxii Nonetheless, viewers will walk away satisfied that the film’s central theme, a stark contrast between the North and the South was evidently delineated; and, that the American national mythology was definitively manifest and pronounced. Per Judges’ point, this essay in no way means to diminish or trivialize the long southern legacy of white terror, promulgated and protected by the political, social and legal structures, rained down upon African-Americans throughout the region, as V.O. Key empirically states, racial bias and power concentration was manifest in the South at the highest echelons of authority, “The critical element in the structure of black-belt power has been the southern Senator and his … right to veto proposals of national intervention to protect Negro rights.”xxxiii Jansson does not deny this viewpoint, but expounds upon it, “if the collection of vices considered, as a whole, to be uniquely Southern can be contained within the South, then they can be washed clean from the national identity.”xxxiv Crespino points out, “The failure of the closed society metaphor was not … its description of Mississippi, but [its] refracted image of America.” Thus, in respect to this film, the frameworks presented in this essay force one to re-consider the big picture highlighting the southern character vs. the national myth dichotomy (which makes evident a collective amnesia) per the factual role of “America” in the 1960s due to deliberate distortions per actual crimes that have transpired and continue to transpire outside the South.xxxv
i Daniel T. Rodgers, “Exceptionalism,” in Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, ed. Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1998), 24.
ii Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 1–2.
iii David R. Jansson, “Internal Orientalism in America: W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South and the Spatial Construction of American National Identity,” Political Geography 22, no. 3 (March 1, 2003): 295.
iv Said, Orientalism, 2–3.
v Jansson, “Internal Orientalism in America,” 293.
vi James C. Cobb, “Introduction,” in Away down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press USA, 2005), 3.
vii Jansson, “Internal Orientalism in America,” 293.
viii David R. Jansson, “‘A Geography of Racism’: Internal Orientalism and the Construction of American National Identity in the Film Mississippi Burning,” National Identities 7, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 270.
x Joseph Crespino, “Mississippi as Metaphor: Civil Rights, the South, and the Nation in the Historical Imagination,” in The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, ed. Matthew D. Lassiter (Oxford: University Press, 2010), 100.
xi Ibid., 105.
xii Andrew R. Chow, “What to Know About the Controversy Surrounding Green Book,” Time, February 24, 2019, https://time.com/5527806/green-book-movie-controversy/.
xiii Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 141.
xiv Michael Ra-Shon Hall, “The Negro Traveller’s Guide to a Jim Crow South: Negotiating Racialized Landscapes during a Dark Period in United States Cultural History, 1936-1967,” Postcolonial studies 17, no. 3 (2014): 307–319.
xv Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, “Introduction,” in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South, ed. Brian Purnell (New York: University Press, 2019), 2.
xvi Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly, Green Book (Screenplay) (Dreamworks Pictures, 2018), 18, accessed March 7, 2021, https://www.scriptslug.com/assets/uploads/scripts/green-book-2018.pdf (all further dialogue is from this screenplay).
xvii Jansson, “Internal Orientalism in America,” 307.
xviii Lynn C. Spangler, Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003), 54.
xix A. O. Scott, “‘Green Book’ Review: A Road Trip Through a Land of Racial Clichés,” The New York Times, November 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/movies/green-book-review.html.
xxi Adolph L. Reed, “The Underclass Myth,” in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, NY: The New Press, 2000), 96.
xxii Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights, 53.
xxiii Cobb, “Introduction,” 1.
xxiv Jansson, “Internal Orientalism in America,” 307.
xxv Ibid., 300.
xxvi Reed, “The Underclass Myth,” 96.
xxvii Monique Judge, “Green Book Has Great Acting, a Misleading Title and Palatable Racism for White People,” The Root, November 20, 2018, https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/green-book-has-great-acting-a-misleading-title-and-pa-1830572839.
xxviii Crespino, “Mississippi as Metaphor,” 102.
xxix Jansson, “Internal Orientalism in America,” 299.
xxx Ibid., 311.
xxxi Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights, 105.
xxxii Judge, “Green Book Has Great Acting.”
xxxiii V. O. Key and Alexander Heard, Southern Politics in State and Nation, New ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 9.
xxxiv Jansson, “‘A Geography of Racism,’” 268.
xxxv Jansson, “‘A Geography of Racism,’” 280.