Green Book Peter Farelly (USA:2018) Vigo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
Viewed 13 Feb 2019 Tyneside Cinema; ticket: £10.75
a kiss is just a kiss
Viewing Norman Jewison’s ‘In the heat of the Night’ James Baldwin wrote that the point of the film was to make white people feel good about themselves. The role of Rod Steiger’s police chief was a device through which whites could preen themselves on their acceptance of blacks. Baldwin notes the final scene in the film ends with Steiger seeing off Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs) at the station, calling out out to him in folksy emotionally charged voice: ‘You take care of yourself, y’hear!’ For Baldwin this fond farewell is a typical Hollywood closure device; like a kiss, but not necessarily a kiss, that betokens reconciliation: that all will be well.
Viewing Peter Farelly’s Green Book, it seems to me that all is not well. Hollywood movies still occupy the same psychic space a propos white attitude towards blacks. In the relations between whites and blacks, as played out by Hollywood, the object of the movies is to enhance and protect white self image. But by 2018, Steiger’s 1967 sign off verbal reconciliation, has, in this touchy-feely era become a ‘hug’. In Green Book Dolores, Nick’s wife, embraces Don Shirley in the contemporary preferred feelgood gesture, as she welcomes him into the bosom of her somewhat uncertain white working class tribal Christmas gathering. The point of course that this hug, this act of physicality, is a phantom gesture of reconciliation to blacks, an empty promise of that which is not possible.
But Farelly’s nod at reconciliation does draw attention to the degree to which his film mimics some of the psychic workings of ‘In the Heat of the Night’. The job of Nick, Don Shirley’s driver/ minder, like Tibb’s Sherriff before him, is to take the white audience through the process of his conversion. Nick changes from being a working class Italian with pronounced racist outlook, into a man who is able to accept a black person as an equal. This education process carries the audience along with it as Nick’s prejudices, like the Sheriff’s before him, are exposed to ridicule and necessary correction. Both Nick and the Sheriff are crude exemplars of their type, but redeemed in the script by their innate decency and their capacity to change the way they think. As if racism were simply a matter of thinking; rather than the engrained white response to the living history of the USA, and the place of the degradation of blacks in that history.
It is interesting that Dream Works (which is a Disney production company) has acquired Green Book and used it as a vehicle to locate a strain of endemic racism in a white working class population. Whilst this may have been part of the allure of the Green Book story to Disney, it is also true that racism is as much a part of the make up of corporate America as it is of the white working class. The critical differences are that in Middle America racism tends to be covert, something hidden, a hate that dare not speak its name. White racial attitudes are the more overt, but white and black working classes share some of the same structural conditions in relation to power and compete in opposition for some of the same resources. But the middle class control the gateways to advancement and wealth. Middle class racism is not only unspoken and more hidden but the more pernicious for being a critical part of the apparatus of power. But movies about Middle Class relations with blacks are thin on the ground.
There are striking resemblances in representation of blacks in Heat of the Night and Green Book in particular as regards their lead protagonists. Both Poitier and Ali play their parts as exercises in the consummate expression of being a ‘class act’, of being impeccable’. The respective scripts kit them out with a Medieval chivalrous code from which they never truly deviate. Both these exemplars bring to their words and deeds, the rectification of moral supremacy. They are both noble beings. As shining examples lacking in human frailty, their behaviour is drawn not from the code of man, but the code of angels. The trouble is that this very exceptionalism makes it possible to avoid seeing as blacks, as men of a particular ethnic group. Rather they present as otherworldly men, drawn from outside space and time. Don and Virgil might even be viewed as sort of ‘honoury whites’, welcomed into the tribe with the thought: ‘…If only all blacks were like you, we wouldn’t be having these problems. ‘ And of course staying true to the the knightly code, neither Virgin nor Don mess with White women, so that particular avenue of courtly love doesn’t have to be roamed. It’s easy to play off perfection. Ordinary folk are as rule messier and often fallible in the conduct of life.
But that said there is one confusing scene in Green Book that sticks out even though it is underplayed for value. In this scene (which is used to demonstrate Nick’s skills at cop management) is called to a YMCA bath house where two local cops are in process of arresting Don Shirley for being caught in the buff in a shower with a white boy. There is a homoerotic suggestion, the implication of a tryst. But after NIck has handed over the hush money, Farelly’s scripts leaps foreword with never a glance back, leaving the faint imprint of a muffled supressed event passed over in silence. Virgil Tibbs was never caught in a bath house, so perhaps Don’s YMCA adventure has some sort of compensatory recognition that Blacks can be gay. However the way it is handled bespeaks more of ‘shame’ than ‘pride’.
In a way Green Book is a lazy movie. The cinematography is unexceptional and the script comes across as something that might have been produced by a final year student at Cooper Union. It is predictable, replaying the same jokes time and again, and has all those little tricks they teach in script writing classes about dropping in salient little details early in the timeline in order that they can resurface pertinently later. The trick is so flagged up that it feels like an exercise. But in this at least it is at one with the whole production which feels like an exercise in the Disneyification of race relations.