Acting Against Segregation: A Libertarian Review of Green Book

by | Feb 22, 2019

Acting Against Segregation: A Libertarian Review of Green Book

by | Feb 22, 2019

Of the several controversies surrounding this year’s Academy Awards program, which airs this Sunday, Feb. 24, none is more ridiculous than the furor over best picture nominee Green Book.

It’s a story about race relations in the 1960s that uses tones and tropes that we’ve seen many times from Hollywood for the last half century. And for that reason the criticisms against it have snowballed into a smear campaign, which has in turn led to a positive reaction in defense of the film, making it the entry most likely to upset Roma for best picture honors.

Green Book’s critics, to paraphrase a few prominent reviews, say it’s a film “about racism, made by white people for white people” in which Viggo Mortensen plays a “white savior,” while Mahershala Ali’s role is just another cinematic “Magical Negro” who merely exists to aid the white protagonist on his hero’s journey.

This sort of take on the film misses—or deliberately ignores—the practical reason why Green Book is told from the point of view of Mortensen’s blue-collar Italian-American “Tony Lip” Vallelonga. He’s the audience avatar, enabling us to see and feel how remarkable a man was Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, the popular classical and light jazz pianist whom we first encounter clad in silk and seated on a throne in his elegant apartment on the top floor of Carnegie Hall as he interviews Tony to be his driver on a multistate concert tour.

Tony, a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana nightclub, needs work while the club is closed for renovations, but he’s not at all warm to the idea of being a black man’s servant. And the fastidious, refined Shirley wouldn’t even be talking to a roughneck like Tony if all he needed was a chauffeur—but what he really needs is a bodyguard to get him safely through the Jim Crow South.

Circumstances require each man to swallow his pride, and they set out in a 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVille equipped with a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide listing businesses that are both willing and permitted to serve blacks looking for food, shelter, and car service in segregated areas. The development of their relationship and the situations they encounter illustrate the consequences of legally enforced racial segregation and how free market forces consistently provide incentives for people to figure out new ways to cooperate. We also see the power individuals have to peacefully confront bigotry, as when Shirley bails on a Christmas concert at a packed supper club after the management insists he eat dinner in a supply closet off the kitchen instead of in the same room where he’s to perform—Shirley’s withdrawal of consent teaches them a sharp lesson .

Everything about Green Book is indeed predictable—the whole story arc is right there in the trailer—but Mortensen and Ali certainly deserve their Oscar nominations for best leading and supporting actor, respectively. Mortensen’s wisecracking physicality a perfect counterpoint to Ali, who uses posture and bearing to hint at his character’s internal conflicts. When Shirley’s facade does crack, Ali’s outpouring of emotion captures the acute anguish of a man whose individuality ensures he fits in on neither side of the racial divide. The fact that he musters the courage to use that talent in an attempt to bridge that divide—we find out that Shirley insisted on touring the South against his record company’s advice—makes him, not Tony, the film’s hero.

Regardless of awards or controversies, Green Book is a decent film—in both senses of the word—that reminds us positive societal change is often awkward, happening in accidental fits and starts as a result of individuals acting to improve their own lot by freely choosing to trust each other.


Aaron Keith Harris is a writer and editor from Dayton, Ohio. He blogs at Things Not Seen and may be reached at aaronkeith@gmail.com.

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