At the 2019 Oscars, ‘Green Book’, directed by Peter Farrelly took home 3 awards, including best picture and best supporting actor for Mahashera Ali. The film, based on a true story, follows Dr Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist who decides to take a trip to the Jim Crow South in 1962. Quite clearly, he’s going to have some problems, and what’s more useful to a black man than a white saviour? For this role, he recruits Tony Lip, a nightclub bouncer from the Bronx. He’s a tough, straight-talking, narrow-minded, Italian New Yorker. The pair have a budding friendship which is exceptionally portrayed by actors Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, a true feel-good classic. However, the film winning the Academy Award created quite a storm.
The term ‘Magical Negro’ was first used by Spike Lee in 2001, using a purposefully shiver worthy word with antiquated meanings to highlight just how outdated the Hollywood system can be. Typically, they are placed in service roles and set out to help the white man overcome an important character flaw, yet cannot use his own magical powers to help himself (think ‘Green Mile’ and ‘the Legend of Bagger Vance’). They tend to enter a narrative coincidentally when the white protagonist is most lost and disappear when they have completed their tasks, displaying folk wisdom rather than real intellectual capability. In short, they serve only to further the character development of their white counterparts.
In truth, ‘Green Book’ does subvert a majority of these tropes. Don isn’t a prisoner or a janitor; he employs Tony and doesn’t have profound wisdom given directly from God. They set out to help each other, Tony helps Don lose his snobbiness, and Don aids Tony with his manners, and his temper… and racist views… and love life… in fact, the whole film centres around Tony becoming a better person. It is, in essence, guilty of creating a whitewashed, optimistic, and therefore naive view on racism.
The film actually pushes further than race and includes a gay scene between Doc Shirley and a young man at the YMCA. The day was saved by Tony Lip, who goes from throwing two cups away that had been used by black men in an initial scene, to rapidly becoming okay with Doc’s blackness, and on top of that, automatically understanding of his sexuality. Is Shirley gay? What happened with his wife? And his brother? The fact is, we don’t know. This scene which one would assume is a pinnacle point of Dons development is merely touched upon and never looked back at.
This feature of the film is necessary for the trope: Don isn’t given any story, he remains rooted in mystery while the narrative follows Tony. Furthermore, we see Don help Tony with his ‘powers’ without being able to use them to his own good, for example, he helps Tony write beautiful letters to his wife, yet won’t write one to his own brother. The narrative is structured in a way where we see Don’s complexity on a surface level, and as a viewer become accidentally complacent.
Nick Vallelonga, the co-writer of the film and the son of Tony Lip, received backlash from Don Shirley’s family, claiming that not only did he not tell them about the film being made, but they also didn’t portray the story accurately. Maurice Shirley, Don’s estranged brother in the film was actually close to him in his life, with Don as the best man at his wedding, two years after the film was set. He approached Vallelonga, pointing out these fabrications in which there are many. They range from seemingly unimportant things (Shirley drove a limousine, not a Cadillac), to undermining the very crux of the narrative: Don and Tony were not friends.
The story is based on Tony Lip’s bedtime stories with no grounding on the worthy protagonist; they missed a great opportunity to show the life of a gay, black musical prodigy struggling with racial adversaries. Instead the character remains hollow, and is only redeemed by Ali’s majestic acting. Its a film that settles for reassurance, and does so by uncomplicating a complicated issue: in ‘Green Book’, racism is a thing of the past.
It is, nevertheless, a heart rendering film and a delight to watch. Its subject matter, race, and its conciliatory ideals about it are what caused the backlash. In such a diverse Academy Award: BlacKKKlansman, directed by Spike Lee, and Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, ‘Green Book’ simply didn’t suffice as a forward thinking film about race dynamics.