Last night the Oscar for Best Picture went (unsurprisingly) to Green Book, yet another "white savior" film where stories detailing the lives of Black people are told through the lens of the white people who "rescued them" from racism and made life better for the entire Black race because of it. It's a trope that's been done to death, but Hollywood just can't seem to help themselves.
Whether it's a story of outright theft, as in The Help where a young white woman "liberates" Black servants in the 1960's by publishing their stories in her best-selling book (the story of which was stolen in real-life too)... or real events being reframed, as in 42 where Jackie Robinson's story is snatched away from him to be viewed from the perspective of the white Major League Baseball executive who decided to integrate the sport (and his white teammates who overcame their prejudices to accept him as a player)... or the unforgivable revisionist history in Hidden Figures where white Kevin Costner rips down a "whites only" sign on the bathroom so Katherine Johnson didn't have to run across campus to pee (something that never fucking happened)... it's a tired trend of making white people the hero in the lives of Black heroes when the actual stories are compelling enough as they are.
In the case of the Oscar-winning film Green Book, we get the story of real-life Black pianist great Don Shirley hiring a racist white chauffeur to drive him for a concert tour. Something which would be a great story, right? Except it ends up being the story of how Don Shirley's driver overcame his racism to build a friendship with him instead, making the white guy the hero of the movie. Because of course he was. Getting a movie about Don Shirley told from the perspective of Don Shirley is apparently asking too much. That film wouldn't get an Oscar for Best Picture because white voters wouldn't have somebody to root for (Black Panther had white Agent Ross, but he was only a minor hero in the movie... if Marvel wanted Black Panther to be a real Oscar contender, they apparently should have told T'Challa's story from the perspective of the white guy and how he saved all of Wakanda).
But I digress...
I'm not holding my breath that we'll get a major motion picture about Don Shirley from Don Shirley's perspective, but tonight on The Smithsonian Channel we did get a documentary on The Negro Motorist Green-Book, which inspired the name of the big budget film that did see release...
Titled The Green Book Guide to Freedom, the documentary is a terrific exploration of the "travel and survival book" for African-Americans who dared to travel during a time when traveling while Black was a potentially life-ending experience. Stay out too late in the wrong city with the wrong color of skin, and it could mean your death. Something that we like to think happened hundreds of years ago in this country... but "Sundown Towns" were still in existence into the 1960's... less than 60 years ago. Meaning that there are people alive today who survived this horrific segregation brutality first-hand (and some of them are interviewed in this program).
If you have the opportunity to see it, The Green Book Guide to Freedom gets my highest possible recommendation.
NOTE: The documentary is excellent, must-see material that's well worth your valuable time. As of this writing, iTunes has it available for FREE and I think other streaming services may be giving it away as well.
NOTE: Another resource I enjoyed was this article from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture which has links to digitized copies of The Green-Book as well as a US map where locations have been mapped out... and even a Green-Book travel planner tool!
The first I had heard of The Green-Book was when I was visiting one of the best museums I've ever seen... The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. They explained that away-games for Black players was often a difficult ordeal given that there may not be restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other kind of services available between cities (or even in the city once you got there). Everything had to be meticulously planned, and even then you could still end up in danger if a bus broke down or some other pitfall ensued.
As I was reading about this abhorrent concept, I overheard a couple nearby talking about "The Green-Book." I had never heard of it before, so I investigated further on Wikipedia when I got back to my hotel...
I found out that it's essentially an AAA Guide with a specific audience in mind. Namely, Black motorists during the time of segregation. Inside you get a list of African-American friendly hotels, restaurants, and other businesses designed to make travel safer and more enjoyable...
As explained on The Green Book Guide to Freedom, the books often-times had editorials and articles that went beyond travel, delving into civil rights issues of the day. As also explained on the program, the book was created in the hopes that one day it wouldn't be needed. Ultimately creator Victor Hugo Green got his wish, and the final issue was published the year I was born, 1966. Sadly Green died in 1960, four years before the Civil Rights Act came into being and six years before his book ceased publication.
Not that the end of segregation was the end of segregation. South Carolina Republican Governor Henry McMaster infamously refused to give up his all-white country club membership when he took office... just two years ago in 2017. Not to mention a president who has said white nationalists have some very fine people in their ranks. Apparently to some people, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was not a symbol of escaping oppression but a symbol of "the good ol' days." Which kinds of puts that whole "Make America Great Again" bullshit into proper perspective, doesn't it?
Seek out The Smithsonian Channel's The Green Book Guide to Freedom. You'll be glad you did.