It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
When Green Book opened in 2018 and then made its way toward the Oscars’ top prize of Best Picture, I had no real desire to view it because of the marketing and headlines it generated — almost all of which focused on its plot “formula” and issues of race in a post-Jim Crow 21st century.
My wife finally made the decision to rent it. It was my decision to watch until the end. (She stuck around, too.) Turns out I enjoyed Green Book primarily because, like most pop-culture events, my take on it runs contrary to everyone else’s. But it wasn’t without trying. I did try to avoid watching it because I feared the hype around it was true.
The hype is kind of true, but only because it seems (in hindsight) like most people who criticized the movie were too lazy to move beyond obvious comparisons to other movies with similar premises. Driving Miss Daisy and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner popped up the most, but the comparisons really stop there. Green Book distinguishes itself from other trope-heavy feel-good flicks by virtue of its almost subliminal subtext — the lives of musicians on the road and their minders.
My unique perspective on Green Book comes from my decision, at the beginning of the current millennium, to quit my radio job and become a road manager for a company that staged assemblies at schools nationwide that featured musical talent of the Top-40 variety. These acts were almost exclusively tied to Disney and appealed to middle-schoolers.
The theme of these assemblies? “The Environment.” I was, at the time, a chronic smoker who drank gas-station coffee from Styrofoam cups before a show and never recycled for even a second. WhenI made the decision, I’d had some experience as a traveling musician. Just after the end of the last century, I was driving a 15-seat Econoline passenger van around the United States with various boy bands and girl groups in tow.
Making money to manage talent can be a lot of fun. You get per diem cash. You get to stay in good hotels. If you have friends in the city you’re visiting, you can have great nights out on the town … provided you get back in time to prep talent for the next gig. For the talent themselves, this life isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, it’s lonely — even in a three- or four-person band. If you’re not necessarily friends with each other, your downtime is usually spent in the hotel ordering movies and room service. At other times, you’re waiting to be rudely awakened at all hours of the morning or afternoon just to sign copies of your latest single or sit through vapid interviews with low-level morning-show radio personalities.
Early on, I went to some fairly enlightened cities on that tour: San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and even Scottsdale, Arizona. But in my later years, when I traveled across the country — and stayed in cities such as Tulsa, St. Louis or Shamrock, Texas — discovering a new town felt more sinister than joyful.
I’ve never been more aware of my “otherliness” than when I was eating breakfast at a Denny’s just outside of Missouri under the glares of stereotypical bubbas in overalls. At the time, I was alone — in the process of moving my belongings from L.A. to Indiana in my pickup. I was eating at every cheap diner and fast-food spot I could manage. I kept wondering why I had to stop at restrooms so often. I didn’t know yet that I had diabetes or that the clutch on my 1999 Toyota Tacoma was about to die. That I made it to Indiana in one piece speaks volumes about both my resilience … and my blissful ignorance.
I am biracial, but I am not an African-American. Therefore, I cannot equate my own road journey with that of Dr. Don Shirley, the black protagonist of Green Book. Traveling the outskirts of the American South as a person of visually indeterminate race does not hold a candle to being black while traveling anywhere in the United States. I have plenty of stories from my brief road-manager gigs in Arizona that come close, but that’s because I had a partner for those dates: Pooky, a black former Blood whose appearance was as menacing as his heart was big.
Thus, my take on Green Book is rooted in witnessing first-hand experiences similar to those faced by the film’s characters. Without those particular adventures, I don’t know how much of the racial hype I would’ve swallowed proportional to all I ingested before I watched it. I drank enough that Green Book initially wasn’t even a possibility on my radar; I simply did not want to pay money to watch White Guilt manifest itself on the silver screen yet again.
White Guilt’s place in popular culture is cemented by the tropes on which its central premise delivers. Astronomy Club, a sketch-comedy show on Netflix with black comedians, skewers White Guilt movies with a skit about rehab for Magical Negroes in films. All the worst offenders are there, from Driving Miss Daisy to The Green Mile to The Legend of Bagger Vance. And yes, Green Book gets roasted (and referenced) by name. But I wonder if any of the comedians on that hilarious sketch show have watched it. If they haven’t, I don’t expect them to watch it. As it is with my travels, I can’t reasonably compare my life to theirs. They would watch Green Book through a different lens.
And so I must clarify that I’m not defending Green Book so much as I am recommending it — even to African-Americans — with a huge caveat: If you go into it with an appreciation for music in general, whether it be classical, jazz or R&B, then you will enjoy this movie. The music is its best part. I had never heard of Don Shirley before this movie, and his music is exquisite. The rest of Green Book’s music is enjoyable as well; none other than Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin helped curate the soundtrack.
Now, this doesn’t bode well for the naysayers, as Zep has been at the forefront of numerous allegations (most warranted) of white people’s musical appropriation of black music. But Plant is also a legend in his own right, with musical taste above and beyond the norm, and so his picks lean heavier on early rock ‘n’ roll rather than bluesy or jazzy selections — the majority of which are Shirley compositions or arrangements.
As for the (based on a true) story of the two leads, marvelously portrayed by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, I see it as the bond between musician and road manager. Yes, race plays a part — in the movie but also in the marketing, the reviews and the Oscar considerations. But from my perspective, Mortensen’s character, Tony Lip, does not so much have a race-related epiphany as he really just learns about life outside of his narrow neighborhood view. If Tony really was such a bigot, he wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. Needing money is not really a motivator, as Tony is shown turning down jobs from mobsters; Tony already displays a level of the dignity that Shirley invokes later on in the movie when they are together in a Mississippi jail.
Rather, I see Tony’s initial conversations and interactions with his charge as pertaining to his work ethic: No matter whether he is busting heads at a club or driving a black man through Georgia, Tony intends to keep his word, and for the most part he gets Shirley to his gigs on time. That’s all that matters to him. Race, relationships and even sexuality are merely part of the job, not the job itself. (Much has been made of Shirley’s sexual proclivities and the movie’s treatment of them, but once again my perspective as a musician on the road sees nothing surprising in this, and certainly nothing social or political.)
I suppose that because the majority of the moviegoing public has not been on a tour — driving from town to town, from motel to hotel, with fluctuating degrees of convenience and accommodation every day and night — then this idea of the road as the price one pays for selling their artistry to the masses might be lost. Certainly Shirley does not have to tour the South if he doesn’t want to, right? He’s not being made to do this. No one is twisting his arm behind his back. But as anyone who has dealt with the music business can tell you, there is enormous pressure to perform with bookings across the country. It isn’t just as simple as saying “I won’t play here” or “Sorry, we’re late because the police are racist and delayed us.” That’s the reason why Tony is hired in the first place. He’s not a white savior, he’s the most qualified person for the gig.
Before he embarks on his journey, Shirley’s management team asks Tony a lot of questions about whether he’s ready or not, and Tony doesn’t understand their skepticism. This implies that others — most likely white — have tried and failed, whether they quit, had a breakdown or were just incompetent. They really don’t care whether Tony likes what he is doing, they just care about the bottom line: Get Shirley to the next town on time or we don’t pay you. Tony knows this and does his job well, or at least as well as he can.
Shirley profits from this, too, so long as he doesn’t endanger his own well-being (which he does a few times during the movie). And it’s not simply because Shirley is black in and of itself, but because he is talented and also tormented by the fact that a man of his stature and genius should have to sit in a janitor’s closet instead of a proper dressing room before a show after hours traveling on the road. This treatment would infuriate anyone, from world-class pianists to crust-punk bands from Oregon living in a beaten-down van. But the fact that it’s the early 1960s, and it’s the law … that is the place from which the movie pulls its gravitas. That might offend those who only react to Oscar bids and op-eds, but it didn’t alienate me.
However, it almost worked. I almost didn’t watch this movie because I was sure it was going to offend me and make me feel like I’d wasted two hours of my life watching director Peter Farrelly grub for an Academy Award. Instead, I enjoyed it immensely and even received the soundtrack (on vinyl) for Christmas. Again, I recommend it — with caveats, of course — highly to my friends and family. Green Book is a much better movie than I ever expected it to be. If you can ignore unfounded commentary and criticism — or simply tailor the narrative to your own personal experiences — you might find it enjoyable as well.