A few weeks ago I momentarily considered laying my hard-earned cash down to see Green Book in the theatres. Fortunately for me, I thought to check out reviews of the film ahead of time. The ones I paid attention to were NOT glowing. One from The New York Times is tellingly entitled “Green Book Review: A Road Trip Through a Land of Racial Clichés”. The second from Jezebel is also auspiciously entitled “Green Book is Another Film about Race for White People”. Thank you to both A.O. Scott and Cate Young respectively for saving me $5.00 and a possible spike in my blood pressure.
I learned about Jezebel’s excellent content when I was doing my review of Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl (2018) and found an insightful interview with the editor of the anthology (see my 2/19/19 review). Good reporting deserves support so I signed up to receive updates from the online publication on the regular.
I will confess that sometimes I dismiss these emails, as like most people with a gmail account, my inbox is overflowing. But a few days ago I opened up their email to find the heading of an article, “Forget the Oscars, Watch the Documentary on the Real Green Book”.
The piece, written by Rich Juzwiack, first alerted me to the fact that the “Oscars [had] once again, awarded a movie about race told from the perspective of a white protagonist, directed and written by white guys”.
The Green Book: Guide to Freedom: The Essential Travel Guide for a Segregated America is an antidote to the “type of film tailor-made to court awards consideration from an Academy that had to be shamed into diversifying its ranks. With its insistence on the pretense of loving our way into racial harmony, the movie exists almost exclusively to allow white moviegoers to nod sagely about ‘how far we’ve come’ before calling the cops on their black neighbors for not waving hello”.
In its annual installments from 1936 to 1966, the actual Negro Motorist Green Book (Negro Travelers’ Green Book) guided black motorists to safe businesses and lodging all over the country. The film about the publication was directed by Yoruba Richen (who also directed the 2013 marriage-equality documentary The New Black), a black woman. In a phone interview with Jezebel about the Oscar-winning film she stated “We haven’t been in control of our own narrative so that’s what you’re going to get—you’re going to get something like the Green Book fiction film”.
Juzwiack’s article also let the audience in on a well-kept secret: that the documentary about The Green Book was available through The Smithsonian. Needless, to say, I promptly typed in the Smithsonian Channel’s website and found the film, airing for FREE!!!
I came away deeply enriched. Richen’s film is beautiful, respectful, and gives the viewer a sense of what was at stake when the author and publisher of The Green Book, African-American businessman Victor Green, made his timely and life-saving book available to African Americans who wanted and/or needed to travel America’s violently racist roads.
In the introduction to the interview with Richen that Juzwiack conducted he states, “Her movie is not just about Victor Green’s conception and execution of his Green Book, but touches on a number of attendant issues like the black middle class, the Civil Rights Movement, women business owners, and the predominantly black vacation spot of Idlewild, Michigan. In shedding light on parts of this country’s history rarely discussed in mainstream venues, Richen’s movie overturns a stone and reveals a universe”.
The documentary, as I said, is beautifully and respectfully rendered. It became clear, as the film unfolded, what an incredible service Mr. Green rendered to the African American community. There is no telling how many lives he literally saved by providing this invaluable resource that he recognized a need for and took action on.
Ms. Richen’s Green Book is sweeping, spanning a number of years and highlighting the national and eventually, international reach of The Green Book. Among the areas that were African American hotspots during the most crucial times of the publication was Idlewild, Michigan where people of African descent flocked for refuge and relaxation during their vacations from the stress of their daily lives in white racist America. Another was Birmingham, Alabama, home of the infamous Bull Conners, but also a place of refuge in the form of the motel owned by the very successful African-American businessman, A.G. Gaston. Mr. Gaston who, although politically conservative, offered free lodging to civil rights leaders Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy during their marches, rallies, and strategic planning sessions in Alabama.
With the success of the Civil Rights movement came the perceived end of the need for a publication like The Green Book. This was a move prophesized by the brilliant Malcolm X who regarded integration as a surrender to white supremacy because of what he saw as its aim of total assimilation into white society as evidence of the belief that blacks had nothing worth preserving.
With integration, and black attempts at assimilation, the vast majority of African-Americans abandoned the black–owned businesses, many of them run by black women, that sustained them when white business owners not only turned their backs on them, but threatened and carried out heinous acts of violence against them all while taking their money. The majority of those black-owned businesses once listed in The Green Book have gone out of business; replaced by those owned by the white majority.
While Ms. Richen’s film does not make this connection directly, it is not difficult to link this twentieth century socio-economic and political development to the twenty-first century dearth of prosperous black-owned businesses in the U.S., including—and I would argue—most importantly, supermarkets. As I have argued elsewhere, when you control someone’s stomach you control their presents and their futures.
The Green Book: Guide to Freedom: The Essential Travel Guide for a Segregated America is a must-see. A mere 50 minutes long, the film provides brilliant insight into early to mid-twentieth century America; it is a wonderful teaching tool for both the high school and the college classroom.