I have made several references in earlier posts to segregation, redlining, and low-income housing as it relates to the health of the housing market here. The history of single-family housing in Seattle is, should be, embarrassing. It is part of the legacy of racism in the Pacific North West, and the country in general. Zoning laws and real estate/banking practices designed to oppress non-whites are coming back to haunt us. The character of the city is being ruined, you say. High density housing is destroying all those beautiful homes. But how did that character come into being? And is there a statute of limitations?
I have also referred to my long and mildly successful acting career. If I ever quit theatre altogether I would like to become a film critic. So today I will take a day off from real estate facts and figures and criticize the critics of film. Today I will discuss Green Book, the movie you should see if you haven’t already. The movie that won Best Picture. A movie about racism and reconciliation in America. A movie being criticized by people who are so wrapped up in their liberal agenda that they have forgotten how to be truly openminded liberals.
Green Book is a simple film. It is a rather shallow look, with a slight stench of Hollywood slick, at a very deep and abiding problem that permeates our society. The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to hotels, restaurants, and all kinds of services that would serve black people, exemplifies the harsh reality of segregation that existed (and I dare say still exists in many different ways) in this country.
Somehow the makers of the film managed to turn this into a feel-good story. It romps through the south from one racist incident to the next. We watch how these experiences move Frank Vallelonga (Vigo Mortenson) and Dr Shirley ( Mahershala Ali) closer together in a racist world. Frank uses the hammer and the Dr. uses the mind in an all too easy to watch clash of cultures.
Isn’t it so touching how the black man and the white man come to an understanding? They actually become friends. I am sure many people walked away from the film thinking “my goodness, how beautiful. Thank god things are better now,” an obviously grossly naïve takeaway. Others walked away angry at all the people who were uplifted and ignorant, blind to the fact that racism still exists.
Then come the critics who are obligated to know better, determined to hack your opinion, and eager for controversy. How dare they simplify such a deeply complicated, festering abscess of a problem. And to make things worse, the movie is racist through and through. Another story that belittles black people by suggesting the black man could only be saved by the grace of The White Man, or suggesting black people need saving at all.
To all that I say, “White Savior My Ass.” Green Book was something else altogether. Hate it for being sappy, a bit slick, perhaps cliché at times, simplistic, and what ever else. Do not, on the other hand, randomly grasp at an easy little ‘champagne socialist’ talking point and bash the movie so you can look good with your liberal friends at a party.
Dr. Shirley was the son of Jamaican immigrants. His mother a teacher, his Father an Episcopal Priest. Dr. Shirley was an accomplished classical pianist at an extremely young age, a Doctor of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts. I grew up listening to his music. I have seen him perform. He had a commanding and calming presence that exuded peace and understanding in a righteous way. Almost every song he plays gives me chills and a sense of calm. He wanted to be a classical pianist but was forced to be something else because he was black.
On the other hand, Frank Anthony Vallelonga Sr., or Tony Lip, was a mob connected bouncer who, because of his surroundings, was given to believe that dark skinned people were sub-human and un clean. I can find no references to any schooling or notable accomplishments until several years after meeting Dr. Shirley. Frank Vallelonga and Dr. Shirley remained friends for the rest of their lives. Frank ended up with 27 acting credits including Goodfellas and The Sopranos. He also helped his son to write the script for Green Book.
Now, I ask you, who is the savior in this movie? The wise guy, who clearly had some innate intelligence, but was perhaps destined to live in ignorance? Or was it Dr. Shirley, a man who gave this provincial mind a chance to expand? I think it was Dr. Shirley, a black, gay man, who, despite the crushing oppression he suffered at the hands of those who looked and behaved just like Vallelonga, in spite of all the common sense of that time, made the effort to educate and sensitize this uneducated man. If you want to say that Dr. Shirley was saved, well, you could say he was saved from losing faith in people. But he saved himself. I think it is clear from the script, and the performance of both actors, that was Vallelonga’s point of view.
I too would like to be saved from the idea that nothing will change. Sure, the story may over simplify but maybe that will make it easier to understand. The fact that it is a true story written by one of the people that lived it is something. I didn’t know about Vallelonga but, I’m guessing the vast majority had no idea who Don Shirley was until this movie came out. I wonder how many Don Shirleys were never able to see the light of success because of redlining.