Sunday, March 17, 2019

Green Book

Speaking of advances in technology as I did last week, we now have “streaming”,  and are able to get first run films on line for a lower cost than going to the movies.  Admittedly, some films would lose a lot being seen on a regular TV screen, but small intimate films may even have more impact on the television being watched with family at home.

So it was with the film chosen to receive the Oscar for best film of the year, “Green Book”.   I will not get into whether it was the best since I have not seen all the other movies.  Those who actually vote get DVD’s sent to them so that they can view all the candidates and vote intelligently. 

“Green Book” has been referred to as a “feel good” picture which I guess it is though I found lots to think about.  Of course, what comes to mind right away are the films “Trading Places” the 1983 film with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy . A closer comparison, and the reverse of this film which is the 1989 movie, “Driving Miss Daisy” with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.  In the latter a black driver is hired to drive  the white Miss Daisy around and she resists until they find their common ground. “Green Book” reverses the roles. 

First off, why the title?  I grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s and still remember the signs down South for the “coloreds Only” water fountains and restrooms.  I had to ask my parents why I could not use them… I don’t remember their response other than a sense of disgust in their voices.  What I never realized, until now, is that “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was an annual guidebook for African-Americans.  Driving was one way to avoid issues of segregation on the train or plane.  I had no idea this guide existed, which is even embarrassing to admit.

1940 edition, Wikimedia Commons/
Collection of the New York Public Library

The film is based on a true story of the very successful pianist, Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali,who lived a priviledged life in an ornate apartment above Carnegie Hall. Having agreed to do a tour in the South in 1962 he needed a driver.  After interviewing a number of white applicants, he decided to go with an Italian-American bouncer from the Copa Cabana, Frank Vallelonga known as Tony the Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen. Tony has been laid-off while the Copa is being renovated.  In real life when he went back to work at the Copa he was promoted to Maitre d’. 

The two protagonists in the film begin to defend each other as they run into the problems you would expect where even a celebrity is not allowed to eat in an all-white dining room and black and white individual association is considered wrong. Before he left on their tour, Tony’s wife insisted that he write which he did not do well as he had never gone beyond a grade school education. During the trip Don Shirley turns his driver’s clumsy prose into flowery love letters.  A true bond is formed between these two disparate men where each learns from the other. No, maybe all the problems of the world will not be cured by this sort of one-on-one interaction but it is a step in the right direction.  Here is a trailer for the film:

The movie BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee is set a decade later.  Here one could say is the other side of the coin and a sadder and more pessimistic one. It is based on the autobiography of the first black member of the Colorado Springs police force.  Even his successful infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan with the assistance of a white officer does not stop their evil program.  The point is made of why, African Americans still feel they need to fight for their rights in the light of recent events and our current administration, which is openly reproached in the film.  Because the Klan does not have much more love for Jews than they do for blacks, they too are included in this hate fest as the film ends with the White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the subsequent riots and the death of a counter-protester, and some of Trump’s remarks.

These two films show both how far we have come and at the same time how much further we need to go to try to change people’s fear of the other. 

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