Green Book’s White Gaze

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Chronicling the concert tour of classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to the American south during the era of Jim Crow laws, Green Book quickly made headlines for its claim to the inspired by a true story. Shirley’s family strongly contested several aspects of the film, including Don Shirley ever giving permission to have a film made about him, his depiction as man estranged from his culture and his family and most glaringly, the nature of his relationship to Tony Vallelonga, who provides the central hook to the film as unlikely friend to a man devoid of any personal relationships.

The film’s creation is an analogy to its content : Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, ostensibly dug his heels in the sand long enough to eventually create the film after Shirley’s death, some 30 odd years after initially being told no. Vallelonga went over Shirley’s head, just like his father, played by Viggo Mortensen, does in the movie, both to widespread acclaim.

White saviour media in any form are continuously successful because they represent a white audience’s inability to admit to the power imbalance between white and black characters. By definition we understand friends to be relationships between two equals, and not something that inevitably leads to one person being dependent on another.

Green Book is a film made by white people for white people, shot entirely from a white person’s point of view. Anything that Tony doesn’t understand, doesn’t question, solves with brute force, directly reflects back onto a writer for whom problems can be solved that way, intentionally and unintentionally bullying obstacles into submission.

Audiences see Tony Vallelonga in Green Book as merely helpful, someone to finally elevate a black man and look at him without  prejudice, but it makes you angry – assuming that a grown man with a doctorate and a successful career needs to be propped up by someone who has known him mere months. Instead of helping Shirley by acknowledging his successes, like a friend might do, Vallelonga challenges Shirley’s identity as a black man on the basis that Shirley *checks notes* is unfamiliar with contemporary jazz artists and hasn’t eaten fried chicken. So in other worlds, Shirley isn’t black enough for not conforming to a stereotypical idea of a white person.

Worse even, Shirley reacts to this accusation with a breakdown over his deep-seated fears of never being white or black enough, a reaction the film never investigates, treating it as nothing but the long-awaited emotional outburst of a stoic character that triggers a change in the men’s relationship. Remember kids, if you want to make friends, prod them with uncomfortable assumptions about their identity until they cry! They will eventually admit you were right and defer to your judgement in all matters.

Vallelonga, who at the beginning of the film is portrayed as someone so uncomfortable with black people in his home that he tries to throw out two glasses a couple of handymen drank from, suddenly knows the location of an all-black blues club in the Deep South, where everyone reacts in a welcoming matter, probably because he has taken one of theirs under his wing. Here by adhering to the two vectors of every black person’s identity – fried chicken and jazz – Shirley can finally be himself.

Green Book  wouldn’t be half as baffling if it at any point took one second to examine the other of the two men the film is supposedly about. There were opportunities to address the very real identity crises black people working and living in predominately white environments can go through, especially when you’re not in contact with your family. As person of mixed descent, I’ve spent a lot of my youth trying to reassure white kids that although I looked different, we were using the same cultural code – only the realisation that we didn’t and couldn’t, seeing as I’m as much a victim of institutionalised racism as any other black person, mixed or not, gave me the opportunity to question certain parts of my upbringing, such as the claim that is possible to not see colour at all.

In the film, Don Shirley is the very representation of a man who has to work twice as hard  to receive the respect he is owed, but instead  a white man gets to take a shortcut even in the entirely internal process of a black man examining his identity his relationship with the injustices he experiences.

It’s difficult to sell racism as character building, and I would rather not have experienced it than to call it a part of a black person’s identity, but it is an existing systemic problem, and Vallelonga bailing Shirley out during such instances isn’t helping him, it’s proving the point that when you have a white person to fall back on, problems can be solved much easier. This makes Vallelonga a perpetrator, confirming racism rather than helping Shirley deal with what can’t be overcome.

The moment of catharsis for Shirley comes when he finally snaps and refuses to perform a gig, an action starkly at odds with the film’s statement that he knew what would await him if he chose to play concerts in the South. With this, Shirley is at odds with one of his principles, itself very familiar to many black people: you need to be the bigger person. Suddenly, we meant to assume that Shirley will be fine, after all he has Tony Vallelonga now.

It’s by no means up to a black person to educate white people on racism, but the way The Green Book ends, no white person has learned anything. The only person who has gained something is Shirley, thanks to a white person showing him the light.

The reason why Green Book can’t provide any meaningful commentary on race is because some experiences need the point of view of the person who lived them. You can’t read about them in a book to be reproduced second-hand, you have to do what film is meant to be doing – show, don’t tell.