One of the more reasoned and powerful voices of insight on Hollywood controversies of late is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who writes about Green Book in the Hollywood Reporter. His thoughts run counter to the irrational hive mind — which is a hammer always looking for a nail, where our fear, panic and pain is given over to our worst instincts. Abdul-Jabbar is always thoughtful, always truthful and balanced in how he approaches scandals involving race.
We’ve come to a bizarre stage in our evolution in how we cover film. Now, not only are films “vetted” to see if they correctly align with our utopian vision of ourselves, but also filmmakers — people go looking for dirt to expose. Clickbait, in some cases, but the kind of stuff that makes the hive mind burst into waves of hysteria that can’t be quelled. We’ve seen it happen more than once. We’ll see it happen a lot before all is said and done. But we need voices like Abdul-Jabbar’s. We need more rational pushback to help guide our ship in a better direction.
Here are a few key quotes:
The character of Shirley is alienated from his sense of self-identity as a musician who wants to play classical music but is forced to play popular music and as a black man who is too educated to be embraced by some blacks but still treated by whites as less than human. He’s also alienated from his own sexuality. He has so much to hide from the outside world that he’s created an acceptable persona for that world. To show him cut off from his family, whatever the facts, is an effective way to emphasize the loneliness and despair that people like him endure.
The other main controversy is whether the film is black enough. Almost every time a film is released that features racism, the work faces the litmus test of “integrity to blackness.” That’s a fair test because movies have a long history of being condescending, reductive and insulting when representing black people or black culture, even when they are well-meaning. With Green Book, cultural critics wonder why the actual Negro Motorist’s Green Book — which listed places throughout the country where black people could safely shop, eat and lodge — wasn’t featured more prominently as a historical icon. Answer: The film implies that there is no “safe” place for blacks because the entire country — from Tony’s kitchen in the Bronx to a concert hall in Georgia — is infected with racism, whether it’s overt, passive or institutional.
Some critics wonder why the story is told from Tony’s point of view rather than from Dr. Shirley’s. Doesn’t that make Shirley merely a stereotypical device, such as the “magical negro,” who exists in the story only to guide the white hero, Tony, through his character arc? Answer: As in all buddy films, whether Rain Man, Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours, both men are changed by their interactions with the other. As Tony reveals to Shirley, he was brought up in the same neighborhood as his parents and will likely die in that neighborhood. Though certainly not to the same extent as Shirley, Tony is imprisoned by geography, lack of education and lack of options. Exposure to Shirley changes his perception. Shirley, who has forced himself to be so guarded that he is imprisoned in his lavish apartment, allows himself to feel friendship and engage in the world that he has kept at a distance.
The film is much more effective from Tony’s point of view because the audience that might be most changed by watching it is the white audience. When black people see a movie about historical racism like Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, we know exactly what kind of horrific cruelty we’re going to witness. Our perception of racism will not be changed because we live it daily. We also know that after viewing the movie, some white people will be self-congratulatory and dismissive by saying, “Well, at least it’s not like that anymore.” But others will be moved to see how those events in history have shaped our current challenges. Black people watching Green Book will recognize Dr. Shirley’s painful journey and be inspired by his accomplishments no more and no less than if the story had been from his point of view.
Finally, there is the question of whether the story should have been told by three white men: director and co-writer Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son) and co-producer Brian Currie. Artistically, it shouldn’t make a difference. A good artist must be able to re-create characters who are different than themselves. While I’m aware that blacks in the film industry need greater representation — and I strongly advocate for them — I’m also aware that this was a passion project that might not have been made if not for the commitment of these men.
Please take time to read the full piece — but of the things done in the past, Abdul-Jabbar says:
Complicating the situation are some boneheaded acts by two of the filmmakers. Farrelly admits that in 1998 he flashed his penis as a joke to There’s Something About Mary star Cameron Diaz and to movie executive Tom Rothman. Vallelonga confirms that in 2015 he tweeted support of Trump’s false claim that thousands of American Muslims had been seen celebrating the tragedies of 9/11. Both men have apologized and disavowed their past behavior, which I take as being sincere. Neither act affects the merit of the film. Actually, the controversy embraces the movie’s point that we can learn from the past to set us on a more enlightened path for the future.
We need more voices of reason like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, less finger pointing, less mass hysteria, less reflexive outrage, and less virtual stoning. Folks, we’re all in this together, stuck together. We must try harder, not by ferreting out anyone suspected of witchcraft, but by listening, communicating, interpreting, and ultimately, finding a way to build a better world. Weirdly enough, of all of the films in the race, only Green Book really tries to communicate that message. It’s a messy and complicated message but a worthy message all the same.