‘Green Book’ Distorts Jim Crow Above the Mason Dixon Line

Controversy and parody have swarmed the film Green Book, notably since it won the Best Picture Oscar last month. Many have criticized the film’s focus on a white heroic character, the resolution of racism through an interracial “buddy” story, and departure from the facts of Don Shirley’s life, according to Shirley’s family.

The film’s grossest distortion of American racism comes through its exclusive focus on the South as the nation’s regional home for widespread discrimination. The film tells a story of white bouncer Frank Anthony — Tony “Lip” — Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), hired by record company promoters to drive Black musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his tour through the South. A friendship ensues as racial, ethnic, and personal differences between the two men give way to camaraderie. To safely navigate this Southern tour, the duo must use The Negro Motorist Green-Book, a directory that lists hotels and restaurants throughout the country that allow Black customers.

That book has a history the movie disregarded. The actual Negro Motorists’ Green Book (later renamed, Negro Travelers’ Green Book), shown in the new documentary The Green Book: Guide To Freedom, has Northern origins. Harlem postal worker Victor Hugo Green created it in 1936 as a guide to New York City’s segregated clubs, hotels, and restaurants. The Jim Crow North restricted where Black people could live, go to school, experience pleasure, stay overnight, and engage in mass consumption. Jim Crow shaped restaurants and public space throughout the North — including segregated beaches in Chicago, segregated roller rinks in Michigan, segregated pools in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and racially discriminatory merchants in New York. As the guide grew, it helped Black people navigate these segregated spaces in the Northeast, South, and Midwest. By 1967, The Green Book contained business listings that welcomed Black customers in every state of the US, including Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. The history of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book demonstrates how American racism was national, not regional.

Unfortunately, the Oscar-winning film limited its focus on how racism infected American businesses and housing patterns to the American South. In the film, northerners, like everyone in Tony’s family (except his wife, Dolores, played by Linda Cardellini), are racial bigots. They sling racist slurs and assume Black men are sexual predators. But viewers never see how New York City, which inspired the need for the original Green Book, was sick with institutional, systemic racial cancers that defined its social and economic life.

Americans continue to confine the history of racism and segregation to the South, despite a significant body of scholarship that examines the structures of the Jim Crow North, as well as movements from LA to New York to challenge them. The Southern story of Jim Crow depicted in the movie continues to hold sway because it casts racism as a regional malady rather than a national cancer. A moving tale of good guys versus bad guys wrapped up by racial reconciliations, the favorite story of Jim Crow fixes racism in the South and largely absolves the rest of the country of this unsavory history. It takes Tony and Don on a drive to a foreign South, and aside from the bigoted remarks of a few individuals, the film ignores the segregated New York City in which these men lived.

Political pressure, municipal regulation, state policy, private enterprise, law enforcement, and violence (by police and private citizens) sustained Northern segregation. When Black people resisted segregated leisure and commercial spaces in the Jim Crow North, white northerners reacted swiftly and, at times, violently. The 1919 riot in Chicago started with a murder of a Black boy swimming past the Jim Crow “line” in the waters of a whites-only beach on Lake Michigan. When Eugene Williams and his friends drifted across an invisible divide at 29th Street (which local people understood as a racial divide), white men hurled rocks and stones from the shore. One struck Williams in the head and the teen drowned. When police arrived, they refused to arrest the white men despite eyewitness accounts of their attack.

Five policemen and a soldier with a rifle stand on a street corner during Chicago's 1919 riot. (WikiCommons)

Flared tempers from the beach spread through the entire city — which was already tense after mass migrations and labor shortages brought on by World War I brought southern Blacks to the city’s factories and South Side neighborhoods — and before long, riotous mobs of Blacks and whites were attacking each other. Roving gangs of whites killed Black men in predominantly white neighborhoods, or near the slaughterhouses and factories that white men considered their workplaces. Blacks fought back. In the end, 15 whites and 23 Blacks were killed, 500 people were injured, and 1,000 Black families were left homeless because white mobs torched residences in Black neighborhoods.

Chicago’s housing and neighborhoods were notoriously segregated, and the city’s Democratic “machine” had a vice-like control of city politics which encouraged networks of “athletic clubs” and “social clubs” organized by neighborhood and ethnicity. Members of these athletic clubs started many attacks on Black people during the 1919 riots. Future mayor Richard Daly was 17 in 1919 and a member of the Hamburg Athletic Club, which was responsible for some attacks against Black Chicagoans; Daly never admitted his participation.

Despite its status as a global city, some of New York City’s most elite restaurants and clubs rejected patrons. In 1947, Huddie Ledbetter, a Black bluesman known as Leadbelly, could not receive service at a Westchester tavern after he finished performing at Sarah Lawrence College. The manager told his white friends that they did not serve “n—” at the restaurant. In 1951, internationally known performer Josephine Baker could not receive service at the Stork Club, an upscale Manhattan restaurant. When the owner, Sherman Billingsley, saw her sitting at a table, a waiter reported that he said, “Who the f— let her in?” Despite laws against racial discrimination in New York State, such practices remained commonplace. Historian Martha Biondi’s influential book, To Stand and Fight, illustrates how, despite laws against racial discrimination in New York State, such practices remained commonplace.

Detroit — the fabled city President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “Arsenal of Democracy” — was little better. A 1943 race riot left 34 people dead, 25 of them Black (17 killed by police). In 1956, Local 600 brought Rosa Parks to speak amid the Montgomery bus boycott and had to put her up in the Garfield Hotel in Detroit’s Paradise Valley, because downtown hotels in the city did not serve Black guests. A year later, the Parks family was forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit, where housing, schools, and much of Detroit commerce and leisure were unofficially segregated.

Though they did not post signs, many Detroit restaurants refused Black people service; the acclaimed Joe Muer’s Seafood served Black customers in the back, wrapping their fish dinners in newspaper, and the Arcadia skating rink didn’t allow Black skaters. The 1967 Detroit uprising was sparked by a police raid of an illegal after-hours bar — created because Black business owners had difficulty securing the capital and permits for an official establishment — where people were celebrating the return of a Black soldier from Vietnam. Many Black Detroiters socialized in such bars because many entertainment venues and restaurants had barred Blacks, though police raids of these establishments were frequent and a “chief source of complaint,” according to the Department of Justice.

Black people did not stand for this type of Jim Crow treatment in the North. The real-life Don Shirley, unlike his on-screen portrayal, confronted Northern Jim Crow when he experienced it. His nephew Edwin recalled a time when Shirley was looking for a nicer place to stay after first moving to New York:

“The desk clerk at a resident hotel across from Carnegie Hall blatantly lied about vacancies once the clerk saw two Black men coming in to take the room. The desk clerk says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry you were misinformed, there is no vacancy.’ And Uncle Donald says, ‘Well I recognize your voice and you were the person I spoke with.’

“The man began to say something like, ‘You people always think,’ and as far as he got was ‘You people,’ and Uncle Donald had grabbed him by his tie and yanked him across the counter. And I stepped between him and made him unloose the man’s clothes and we got out of there before the man could call the police.”

When Black people tried to desegregate the Jim Crow North, whites responded with swift, direct, retaliatory action. Some posted signs reading “We want white tenants in our white community,” threw bananas and bottles, and used violence against Black people who attempted to move into ‘their’ neighborhoods or schools. When Black people started to desegregate the white Fremont High School in south Los Angeles in the 1940s, white students held mock lynchings; in the 1960s they picketed “communist” and “traitor” Martin Luther King Jr. for his support of open housing. In Hartford, Connecticut, white activist Ned Coll and groups of school children attempting to desegregate Connecticut’s beautiful beaches found “closed gates, slammed doors and threats of arrest,” according to historian Andrew Kahrl, whose book Free the Beaches details the myriad ways Connecticut residents attempted to keep “their” beaches white.

Less than a mile from Tony Vallelonga’s home in the Bronx, Black people could not attain jobs as cooks at a local White Castle restaurant. When the desegregation of the Bronx White Castle took place in 1963, whites responded in true Jim Crow fashion. They took out KKK hoods and Confederate flags, and some planned serious violence and terrorism. They proved Alabama Governor George Wallace’s claim that everyone hates Black people, an observation that followed the more than 100,000 letters applauding his decision to block the University of Alabama door in 1963. “They're all afraid, all of them…The whole United States is Southern.”

So, what does the film Green Book “achieve” by keeping violent and vicious, institutional and intentional racism in the South? It allows the white character to have some racial awakening, and to act heroically by confronting racism in the South. Tony and Don could have driven to the Clason Point section of the Bronx — where the Castle Hill Beach Club fought for years (including in 1962, when the film takes place) to keep Black people from using its pools, picnic tables, and parks — rather than the Deep South, to experience Jim Crow treatment in public accommodations. After two hours of watching Tony and Don grow into close friends — Tony teaches Don how to eat fried chicken; Don teaches Tony how to write poetic love letters to his wife; Tony and Don stand up together against racist Southerners — and return to New York, where a racially rehabilitated Tony invites Don into his home on Christmas Eve. In Green Book, American racial reconciliation comes from confrontation with Southern racism, but the Jim Crow North remains unnamed and unaddressed.

As Stokely Carmichael observed in 1966, “A man cannot condemn himself. Were he to condemn himself, he would then have to inflict punishment upon himself.” Filmmakers, Oscar voters, and most popular treatments of American racism prefer not to deviate from a Southern frame of American racism because doing so would entail a more uncomfortable reckoning with their own city’s histories and contemporary practices. While restaurants and hotels may not be segregated in Birmingham or the Big Apple, schools, housing, policing, and employment still differs markedly along racial lines. Attempts to change that regularly draw pitched battles, including recent controversy regarding rezoning a few NYC schools (from DUMBO to the Upper West Side). And who wants that in the “feel-good movie of the year?”


About the Authors

Brian Purnell is the Geoffrey Canada associate professor of Africana studies and history, and director of Africana Studies Program at Bowdoin College. Jeanne Theoharis is a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of CUNY. They co-edited The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North, which will be published by NYU Press.