‘Green Book’ Wins Best Picture Oscar But Leaves Us With Questions

The truth about racism and the problem of The White Man’s Burden is all too apparent in Oscar winner ‘Green Book’.

Art and Culture
4 min read
Screen shot from the film.

(This article, originally published on 15.02.19, is being republished, in light of the film winning the Oscars in three categories, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor).

Actor-musician Childish Gambino’s song ‘This is America’ recently won the Grammy for Song of the Year, a first for a hip-hop number. The song, as many are familiar, is a scathing comment on racism, hate crime, and gun violence in the US.

This award comes at a time when the United States has witnessed its highest number of gun deaths (nearly 40,000) as reported by The New York Times, in 50 years. Under the Donald Trump presidency, the US has seen an uptick in the public expression of racist views, and the president’s own such views are, by now, common knowledge.

The year Trump entered the Oval Office, ie 2017, the FBI reported that hate crimes – with nearly 3 out of 5 being motivated by race and ethnicity – saw a 17 percent increase since 2016.

Exposing America’s Racist Culture

Close on the heels of the Grammys are the Oscars (scheduled for 24 February 2019), with a film on racism in 1960s America – Green Book – being one of the top contenders, with five nominations. Green Book, featuring actors Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in lead roles, is a biographical drama on the life of famous American classical and jazz artiste Don Shirley (played by Ali).

Through the depiction of the companionship between black musician Don Shirley and his white bouncer-bodyguard Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (played by Mortensen), Green Book attempts to expose America’s pervasive culture of racism.

While the film’s ‘shock factor’ is high and indeed, it does manage to make a strong comment against racism and white supremacy, it also ends up glorifying the white man ‘saviour’. Tony Lip just becomes another white man bearing the burden of playing protector and saviour to the black man Don Shirley.


Can the Subaltern Speak?

Tony always comes to the rescue, when, during a concert tour by road in America’s racist Deep South, Don Shirley is beaten up by white goons for ‘daring’ to enter a bar for ‘only’ white people; when Shirley is handcuffed and humiliated by white cops for sexually engaging with a white man; when Shirley isn’t allowed to dine at a restaurant with other white patrons. And there are many more such instances.

Good Guy Tony always has the erudite yet ‘outcast’ Don Shirley’s back. Can the oppressed truly speak for themselves? The short answer to that is yes – but, as per white media representations – usually through a white cis male ‘ally’. Why is it that a white man has to teach Don Shirley to stand up for himself (as Tony Lip tells him intermittently, “Doc you gotta stand up for yo’self”)?

Being an ally is all very well, but not when you think you need to step in to be their voice, or help them gain “consciousness”.

However, what Green Book does, and well, is opens up conversations surrounding the complexities that pervade race relations, racism, bigotry, and the dynamics that inhabit these spaces.

At the onset, one is presented with the ‘anomaly’ of a tuxedo-wearing, erudite black man, Dr Don Shirley, who has hired a white man, Tony Lip, to be his bouncer and bodyguard over a two-month concert tour by road. Tony, unlike his employer, is not (expensively) educated, and his language and diction are a dead giveaway. Dr Shirley is quite embarrassed by this and even offers lessons to Tony on proper intonation and diction. The irony couldn’t be more stark, in this reversal of The White Man’s Burden, and it works well for the film.


How ‘Black’ is ‘Black’?

Right through the film, we see Shirley as a person of refined tastes, free-flowing cash and the generosity that also (often) comes with privilege, and even the white luxury of a butler (an Indian man – hah!). Don Shirley plays the music of white people – western classical piano, from Beethoven to Debussy – “instead of” playing the music of his people – jazz / blues – and plays primarily for upper-class white society.

This is when one wonders: what is wrong with a black person dressing in attire that doesn’t align with white representations of black people? Who defines what ‘black people attire’ and ‘white people clothes’ should be?

And yet, when you see Mahershala Ali’s character Don Shirley being piercingly stared at by black farm workers (obviously for his expensive-looking tailored suit), you wonder – do the oppressed have to bear the appearance of being oppressed?

When the idea of how a black man should look or act is challenged in Green Book, we are faced with this dilemma – should it be morally incumbent on a person belonging to an oppressed/marginalised group to adopt the culture, habits and way of life of their people?


The Catch-22 of Escaping Oppression

The catch-22 that is the life of a person belonging to a historically oppressed group but who has managed to escape part of the oppressive circumstances, is quite well presented in the film.

Contrarily, does a person from a marginalised community have to aspire to the standards of the hegemon in order to gain even remote acceptance? At the end of the film, these are some of the questions that one is left with.

But in the final analysis, when it comes to the Oscar nominations, one sees that despite both actors, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, being featured in lead roles, Ali gets nominated in the Best “Supporting” Actor role, while Mortensen finds place in the Best “Actor” category.

Must the person of colour – no matter how erudite, elevated and “White” – remain a stock ‘Magical Negro’ sidekick?

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