‘Green Book’ Appeases White Anxieties about Black Excellence

On Sunday evening, to the disappointment of many viewers, the movie Green Book won the coveted Oscar for Best Picture. The film claims to be based on the true friendship of African American musical prodigy Don Shirley and his chauffeur Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga Sr., but stands at the intersection of reality and fiction. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Green Book “is a tour de force of revisionist history.” Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), a multilingual musical extraordinaire with three doctorates, is transformed into a modern-day Uncle Tom in need of a white savior. According to Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Lip and one of the film’s writers, the screenplay was based on real-life events. In reality, it was based solely on Tony Lip’s stories to his son with no input from Shirley’s family or friends. The film is “riddled with racial clichés,” is grossly embellished, and “achieves historical erasure of epic proportions.” This film typifies what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called the danger of a single story, which silences the real Dr. Shirley. Green Book also speaks to a more profound, historically sticky juxtaposition: that between real African Americans and their fictional representations.

Blacks have had to compete with widely circulated fictional representations of Blackness since the mid-nineteenth century, according to Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture. A poignant example of the competition between real versus imagined Black life is the story of Williams Wells Brown, an enslaved man and prolific writer who made his escape to freedom in 1847 after several failed attempts. Brown was a favorite on the anti-slavery lecture circuit, capturing audiences with his stellar articulation of his daring escape from the horrors of slavery. However, as Brown and others learned, “Every Black standing before the largely white anti-slavery audience—often called ‘friends of the Negroes,’—became a performer who had to negotiate perceptions of slave Blackness.” This performative act sometimes required that they speak in a pseudo-plantation dialect, despite an ability to speak colloquial English. Even Frederick Douglass was admonished not to appear so intelligent because it would be hard to convince people that he was ever a slave. The 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the symbol of slavery that audiences embraced.

Even so, Douglass and Brown were determined to pursue their full potential rather than enslave themselves to representations that appeased white anxieties about Black excellence.

These anxieties continued in popularity for almost a century and persist today. Caricatures of American race relations, such as those exemplified during the advent of the Hollywood buddy film era, favor racial fictions of American progress rather than the reality of an abiding racial divide. They are present in many films, including Driving Miss Daisy, Beverly Hills Cop, Miss Congeniality 2, and The Lethal Weapon franchise. According to B. Lee Artz in Hegemony in Black and White: Interracial Buddy Films and the New Racism, these films attract Black audiences by incorporating elements of Black culture and a white character “who is weak, naïve, or dishonest and easily upstaged by the Black star.” The interracial partnership promotes the idea of “equal footing” which eliminates the need to bridge cultural obstacles and distinctions. These films also attract white audiences because they adhere to four basic rules that maintain the racial status quo: 1) rendering Black culture as “stereotypically jive”; 2) preserving white authority; 3) separating the lone Black character from their community; and 4) maintaining the illusion of racial equality while adhering to the tenets of white supremacy.

Because Green Book strictly adheres to the interracial buddy formula, Nick Vallelonga’s contention that everything depicted in the film “happened in real life” is highly doubtful. While Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) indeed served as Shirley’s chauffeur during his 1962 tour through the South, the musician’s brother and sister-in-law told The North Star that much of the story is embellished. According to Maurice E. Shirley, his brother was not estranged from his family, and his relationship with Tony Lip was merely professional. “Not only were they not friends,” he insisted, “Don fired Tony several months into the tour for insubordination. My brother was a perfectionist. You had to wear the uniform and hat. But Tony wouldn’t wear it, and he wouldn’t open the door, so my brother fired him.”

Edwin Shirley, Don Shirley’s nephew, recently stated that he was present 30 years ago when Nick asked his uncle about doing a film. Shirley declined the offer due to a number of reservations, which in retrospect were not unfounded. Black culture is overwhelmingly mass-marketed through the white gaze, as it has been for centuries. While all of the world is watching Green Book, and some are even celebrating its recent Oscar win, the real story through the perspective of Don Shirley has been completely overlooked. That is a tragedy.

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.