Green Book and the problem with black male exceptionalism

Mahershala Ali (at left) and Viggo Mortensen in “Green Book”

What a difference five months makes.

“Green Book” was the last film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. At the time, it was enjoying its victory lap as the Grolsch People’s Choice Award winner. Five months later, it has opened in Guyana just ahead of tomorrow’s Oscar ceremony, where despite major nominations and a slew of other awards, its path to victory seems more tainted. To be fair, “Green Book” still has mostly positive responses from critics and audiences but has come under fire for its perspective on race and racism, for its behind the scenes dramas and for its representation of its main characters. There are also the Islamaphobic accusations against its writer, the racism accusations against its star, Viggo Mortensen, and the accusation from film subject Don Shirley’s family that the portrait of him is antithetical to reality. The list of issues goes on.

Much has been written about the limitations of “Green Book,” with the criticisms hearkening back to those of the 1988 film “Driving Miss Daisy,” with which it has received much comparison. In that film, Morgan Freeman’s driver was hired to drive Jessica Tandy’s Jewish widow around and they form a friendship across their racial lines. Perhaps, the comparisons are valid. It is easy, too easy, to hold up “Driving Miss Daisy” as the natural predecessor for “Green Book.” For all the light humour, “Daisy” has an infamous legacy as an undeserved Best Picture winner in the year of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” – which did not even earn a Best Picture nomination. Decades later, as Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman” vies with “Green Book” for the crown, the comparisons are easy to make. And, yet, the comparisons are flawed. For, the Oscar winning film that “Green Book” really hearkens back to is from decades earlier, the 1967 Best Picture winner, “In the Heat of the Night.”

When “In the Heat of the Night” won Best Picture at the Oscars, it became the first with a black protagonist – legendary actor Sidney Poitier in the role of Virgil Tibbs – to earn the title. The film has maintained an impressive legacy. It is remembered for the boldness of its black hero, a detective who solves a crime. It is remembered for how, through the crime-film genre, it examines the issues faced by a black man in a white world. The highly quotable nature of Poitier’s “They call me Mr Tibbs” is the stuff of legend and yet… when I think of “In the Heat of the Night,” it endures as a textbook example of the kinds of films that are able to earn critical acclaim for featuring a black protagonist. “In the Heat of the Night,” despite its legacy as a great moment for race relations in Hollywood, remains a painfully apt reminder of the kinds of stories that very often get the privilege of mostly white audiences.

In both films, a good-natured rascally white male changes his perspective on race relations due to the introduction of a black man in his life. But not just any black man – and this is key – but a special, an exceptional, black man. It’s one of the richest myths of blackness in the West. For a person of colour to be afforded visibility, they must be beyond the scope of doubt. They must be immaculate. Exceptional. And different from the usual black people in the world. In “Heat,” like in “Green Book,” this exceptionalism is marked by an on-screen loneliness. Detective Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night” arrives in the South to visit his mother but his visit is intercepted by a racist policeman and then by a chance to solve a murder. With his visit to his mother delayed, she is never mentioned again in the film.

“Green Book” is the story of the musician Don Shirley and the friendship he formed with Frank Vallelonga, the driver who takes him through the Deep South for a series of tours. It is co-written by Vallelonga’s son but has been criticised by members of Shirley’s family for being dishonest about his relationship with them. But the absence of the families in both cases are incidental amidst the larger role that blackness plays within both films. They are divided by more than half a century but are eerily joined by the similarity of their respective theses. One of the most striking scenes in “Heat” features Tibbs and Officer Gillespie driving to the plantation of a murder suspect. As the two drive along the road and the camera pans out, we see fields of black workers picking cotton. Some remain picking, while others look up at the oddness of the black man so nonchalant in the passenger seat of the car in the racist South. “None o’ that for you, eh, Virgil?” Gillepsie says, emphasising what we already know: as much as Sidney Poitier’s role is a landmark figure, his detective in a $1,000 suit represented a vision of blackness that is beyond the black workers in the fields. And the hundreds of thousands of black audience members that would flock to see the film would be similarly unable to align themselves with Tibbs, although they would see his specialness as aspirational.

It’s curious that “Green Book” features a scene that’s eerily similar (even eerier that it’s echoed in another analogous tale of black-and-white friendship, “Django Unchained”). The car Vallelonga is driving breaks down somewhere in Kentucky and as he hurries to fix it, Shirley stands annoyed at the delay. He leans against the car, looking out on to a field as a group of field workers look on in shock. Their shocked faces telegraph their feelings: “Who is that black man?” Shirley looks on, as if now realising the difference between him and the other people of his race in the South. Except, that incredulity reads as especially false. To be black in the West is to be constantly aware of the precariousness of your position. Except, very little in “Green Book” affords the character of Shirley, a character written with little interiority, to indicate this. Instead, as played by Mahershala Ali, Shirley remains an opaque man who stands apart—the film takes great pains to pronounce upon his difference in relation to every other person of colour he encounters. Is that specialness the problem?

One may say, well, everyone can’t get their story made. Films and plays and novels are, by right, about characters who are special, except I think about Arthur Miller’s landmark “The Tragedy of the Common Man” essay, which argued for a movement away from the kings and counts and soldiers of classic drama to privileging the stories of regular people. Drama and film have followed suit. Some of cinema’s finest works are about common men who dared to persevere. But almost always these are stories about common white men. Even when the stories are more thoughtful about race than “Green Book,” in the films that are rapturously lauded with black protagonists in this century (“Selma”, “Ray,” “Hotel Rwanda” even this year’s “Blackkklansman”) we notice at the centre a black man who is not a (mere) common man of the people but a man who stands apart from his peers. These films, though, are all more thoughtful in their representation of race relations, navigating the way these special men relate to their community, even when they are men apart from them. “Green Book”, though, never makes that connection. It never cares to.  The problem with “Green Book,” assuming you believe there is one, is not that Shirley is an exceptional black man. The problem is that “Green Book,” like “Heat,” hopes to absolve its main character of his race issues because he’s been beguiled by this special black man. The film never cares to investigate the very fact that the beguiling is predicated on his specialness. In the film, Shirley’s way with words is a tool for Vallelonga to be charmed by him. Golly, this black man sure is smart. He doesn’t expect that. Similarly, Gillepsie will be impressed at the professional acuity of the coloured Tibbs. And so, their resolution creates discomfort rather than the satisfaction they intend.

 

I remember watching “Django Unchained” and towards the end, during a pivotal scene, Django was questioned about the audacity of his actions. Their incredulity that a black man could be so adept at gun-slinging was palpable. How dare he? The kicker of the scene is Django’s proud declaration, “I am that one n***** in one thousand.” True, it would be unusual for any black man to do what Django does. But Django is not just any black man but an exceptional black man. At the end of “Green Book” when Shirley is invited into the Vallelonga’s family home, the line reverberated in me. Shirley had made it onto the list. Not just any black man, but the one in one thousand. Viewed from that lens, it’s difficult to find the film’s resolution as heart-warming as its most ardent fans do.

“Green Book” is now playing at Caribbean Cinemas

 

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