Green Book vs. Driving Miss Daisy vs. Do the Right Thing
When I first heard about the controversy around Green Book, I was puzzled. Why would some in the African-American community be upset that a movie portraying a genuine friendship between a white and black man, based on a true story, would be a favorite for an Oscar win? This was before I’d seen the movie.
To gain a better understanding, a little bit of movie history.
Picture it: the Academy Awards 1990. All the nominees are now considered movie classics: Dead Poets Society, My Left Foot, Field of Dreams, Born on the Fourth of July, and the favorite to win, Driving Miss Daisy.
Notably missing from this list was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Considered by many to be too incendiary, the Academy’s mostly white, older male membership chose to ignore it. Yet many in the African-American community didn’t ignore it, feeling that Spike Lee got robbed when his unflinching and honest look at racial tensions that boil over in one New York neighborhood was overlooked.
Driving Miss Daisy was much more palatable and non-threatening to the Academy. It’s about the growing friendship between a proper elderly Jewish Southern woman (portrayed by Jessica Tandy, for which she received the Oscar for Best Actress), and her African-American driver (portrayed by Morgan Freeman, who was nominated but didn’t win for Best Supporting Actor).
Couched in a feel-good friendship, Driving Miss Daisy is hardly a raw or scathing look at race. Yet at the time championing that movie might have reassured the white Academy members who supported it that they were indeed progressive and certainly not racist. But when you take a hard look at it, their lack of support for Do the Right Thing shows that they were afraid to. Do the Right Thing was clearly ahead of its time, but it was so hard hitting that it made the white Academy members uncomfortable.
Some white people might be scratching their heads, saying, “What’s wrong with Driving Miss Daisy? I love Driving Miss Daisy. It’s such a sweet movie.” I enjoyed it too, but for black audiences, the problem is that the friendship is portrayed almost entirely from the white woman’s perspective.
Green Book has almost the same problem. The story is told from the perspective of Italian-American Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen. Tony is a complex if uneducated man: he’s crude and racist, and yet he’s witty, and he’s tender towards his wife and kids. He shows genuine concern towards famed African-American musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who hires him to drive him on a tour through the deep South.
Unfortunately, Green Book only has fleeting moments seen from Dr. Shirley’s perspective. Tony is seen “saving” Dr. Shirley on more than one occasion. Green Book presents racial inequalities, but because they are only occasionally seen from the black perspective, they aren’t as hard hitting as for instance in a film like Hidden Figures, where the inequalities are gut wrenching because we see them from the black female scientists’ perspective.
In Hidden Figures, we run right along with Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Hensen) as she desperately races on foot across the large NASA complex to a ladies’ room that “colored” women such as herself are allowed to use. On the other hand, in Green Book, Dr. Shirley refuses to use an outhouse at a mansion where he is performing, a powerful moment. Tony has to drive him all the way to his hotel room, but we see this mostly from Tony’s, not Dr. Shirley’s, perspective. Showing both men’s perspectives would have allowed for a more revealing and incisive look at race relations.
Green Book vs. BlacKkKlansman vs. Black Panther
Green Book would have been a lot more powerful had it been told from both men’s perspectives.
I don’t doubt that Green Book was made with love, but it was directed by a white man, Peter Farrelly, and written by three white men, Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Nick Vallelonga, so that is the story’s point of view.
I also don’t mean this criticism to take anything away from the power of the performances in Green Book. Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of the brilliant Dr. Shirley is wonderful. Dr. Shirley is a restrained and dignified man who nevertheless lives with the heartbreak of a personal identity crisis: not being “black” enough to be accepted by fellow African-Americans due to his musical tastes and association with rich white patrons, but not being white, he’ll never be accepted by those white patrons who celebrate his performances yet refuse to share a table with him. So where does he belong?
Similarly, this is definitely one of Viggo Mortensen’s finest performances: not only a remarkable physical transformation but something drastically different from his other roles.
Everything that portrays race relations doesn’t have to be hard hitting. In fact, it’s important to have all kinds of stories about race relations, even, if not especially so, feel-good ones.
However, on Oscar night 2019, it was as if history were repeating itself. Thirty years later, Spike Lee was back at the Oscars. This time his movie BlacKkKlansman was included among the Best Picture nominees, and so was Black Panther, both of which feel like more current commentaries on black people in society and race relations in addition to just being great stories.
Black Panther did receive several Oscars, and Spike Lee won for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. Yet Green Book won for Best Picture, and Lee couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1990 Do the Right Thing shut-out. Spike Lee said later, “I thought I was courtside at the Garden. The ref made a bad call.”
Why can’t we all just get along?
I chose the title “Why can’t we all just get along?”—the famous utterance by victim of police violence Rodney King after his brutal beating sparked the LA riots in the 1990s–because it’s an innocent question fraught with complicated answers.
Lots of (white?) people just want a nice, genteel awards show, without political commentary. Why does anybody have to complain? But if we never question, criticize, defy expectations, shake things up and turn things upside down, we will never grow as artists. We will never reveal the searing truths that need to be laid bare for the world to mull over, discuss, and argue about. As storytellers, we need to challenge and be challenged. We need those important stories that lay the truth bare and the brave filmmakers who tell them.
And let’s face it, we also need the warm and fuzzy, the feel good, the celebratory, the stories that bring us together, that say we have more in common than we have differences that tear us apart. But even so, we need to examine how we are telling the warm and fuzzy stories, and who is telling them. Is there a greater truth, and a more wholistic picture, that we can reveal in telling them?
I think that Green Book won because the Academy members just want us all to get along. They liked the movie’s message that a black person and a white person can be lifelong friends in spite of their profound differences. They viewed Tony and Dr. Shirley’s friendship as symbolically healing divides between white and black people during the Civil Rights era. It’s an idealistic and perhaps naive view, but it isn’t without merit.
So has progress been made? Incremental progress has been made as far as the Academy goes. The Academy has changed qualifications for membership in order to diversify its ranks in the last few years, so its membership today is more diverse. Sixteen percent of the Academy is of color, and 31% are women. More women took home more Oscars in 2019 than any other years, and African-American films and their makers made one of the strongest showings in Academy history (the last strongest showing being 2016).
We can’t heal all racial divides, but we can do something positive in our corner of the world. Studies show that people, especially white people, rarely have friends outside of their own race. But having friends of another race is vitally important in today’s world.
Psychologist Deborah Plummer said it best in the Washington Post:
The competencies necessary to navigate our increasingly multicultural, global society are not successfully or fully learned in organizations, classrooms or workshops. Because of the possibilities that cross-racial friendships hold for individual and societal benefit, it is imperative that we continue to examine how barriers to establishing such friendships can be removed and how cross racial friendships can be nurtured.
Be a friend to a person of a different race, invite them to a movie, and then hear their perspective. Maybe it will change your life.
If you enjoyed this essay, I hope you will check out my list of movies celebrating African-American culture. I created this list from the heart, and all these movies are well worth checking out with your family. Enjoy!