Growing up, I rarely saw representations of queer black men onscreen. Further, I seldom, if ever, saw eager audiences waiting to listen to or watch stories about these men’s experiences. Thus, amid the necessary conversations about increased, humanizing media representation — of people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, women and other historically marginalized individuals — I was eager to celebrate “Green Book.” But “Green Book” should not be praised by the Academy just because of its potential for greatness; it should be critiqued for its ineffective delivery.
Based on a true story, “Green Book” is a dramedy about a friendship that develops between Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a queer black concert pianist, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bigoted Italian-American ball buster. Set in 1962, Shirley hires Vallelonga as his driver in the deep South and Midwest. The film explores the racial tensions between Shirley and Vallelonga, the internal prejudice Vallelonga learns to reject and Shirley’s experiences in the South.
However, the film has received significant and deserved backlash in light of its recent Oscar win for best picture, due to its rigid portrayal of Shirley and Vallelonga’s friendship, minimal exploration of Shirley’s sexuality, Mortensen’s use of the N-word during a press event and the exclusion of Shirley’s family as consultants during the filmmaking process.
I attended the film’s world premiere this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and positively reviewed the film for the Wheel. I was excited to see hundreds of enthusiastic white faces in the audience watch Shirley’s story — I had not previously seen white exuberance during a film about race.
I thought the juxtaposition between white audience members in Georgia and in Canada was about Canada’s comparatively inclusive culture or geographic degrees of separation. Maybe people were more receptive to a scathing critique of racism and homophobia in Toronto. But “Green Book” is not a scathing critique of racism or homophobia. It is a romanticized film adaptation of an interracial friendship that allows white audiences to superimpose themselves onto the figure of a rambunctious and loveable, albeit ignorant, Italian fella.
New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris refers to films like “Green Book” as “racial reconciliation fantasies.” These films take incendiary, complicated issues and use the struggles of black characters to help white characters — and white audiences — feel better about America’s racist past and present. Morris cites “The Help” and the 1990’s Best Picture win, “Driving Miss Daisy” as notable examples.
I am not arguing that films about race need to make audiences uncomfortable in order to be effective. Nor do underrepresented characters have to be the leads of every film in which they appear. Rather, underrepresented people deserve to exist on screen and in everyday life as more than teaching tools for their antagonizers, no matter how well-intentioned those antagonizers are.
Having the supportive white peer be the protagonist of “Green Book” forces the threatened black man to act as a foil. Therefore, audiences only indirectly and intermittently interact with Shirley’s ostracization from society. Tense moments of bigotry and racism are posed as forgivable, because Vallelonga isn’t as bad as other more blatantly racist whites. In these scenes, the film fails to do something critical. Not only should Shirley — as Morris also argues — have been the champion and protagonist of this film, “Green Book” should not have aimed to redeem Vallelonga through humor or good intentions. Let him fail; let him be ugly. By asking the audience to forgive Vallelonga’s shortcomings, viewers are not doing the important work of trying to recognize themselves in the bigot onscreen.
That’s why “Green Book” didn’t deserve the award for Best Picture at the 76th Golden Globes, nor the 91st Academy Awards. Nor did it deserve the 2018 TIFF People’s Choice Award over “Roma,” “The Hate U Give” or “Monsters & Men.”
In the months since watching and reviewing the film, I internalized the fact that adapting a film about the life of a gay black man is not a laudable feat. Moving from no representation to minimal, botched representation may feel like an improvement. But this is merely an inventive way to commodify the humanity of people who were simply typecast or entirely absent in films before.
We cannot reward films that exploit the experiences of the oppressed as gratification tools for white scene partners and audiences. When we do, we implicitly assert that stories about the oppressed are not as important as mainstream white audiences’ efforts to care about them. If we are truly going to push studio executives, producers, writers and actors to prioritize projects that better represent modern America, we must think critically about how willing we are to confront that America onscreen. Finally, critics like myself need to do better than to applaud a film for reaching for excellence. We need to applaud them once, and if, they actually achieve excellence.
Adesola Thomas (20C) is from Hampton, Ga.