The come-from-behind win of “Green Book” as best picture has ratcheted up debate that’s been simmering all year about the movie’s artistic and political vision. The criticism goes like this: In the age of “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansmen,” when black artists are at last seizing narrative control of their own stories, a black-white buddy movie that reaches for racial reconciliation in segregated America is embarrassingly retro, not least because it’s a story told through the lens of the white character.
I also had a racial problem with the movie. But my problem is not that it told the black story insufficiently in detailing the relationship between the white driver, “Tony Lip” Vallengola (played by Viggo Mortensen), and the black pianist, Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali). My problem is that it told the white story insufficiently. It squandered a tremendous opportunity to flesh out the complex journey of a white person who starts out being reflexively racist but moves on to accepting a different truth about black people. That kind of transformation necessarily entails questioning the entire system that demonizes black people in the first place. But we see none of that from Tony.
In one of the first scenes, a couple of black plumbers come to Tony’s apartment to do some repairs. Tony can tolerate this, but not that his wife has provided them with water in his glasses; once they leave, he tosses the glasses in the trash in obvious disgust. Yet this aversion to black people doesn’t really come up again. We don’t see him struggle to overcome his feelings once he signs on to drive for Shirley, a black, gay, impeccably educated concert pianist. Instead he simply seems to have checked his racial animus at “hello.” The preconceived notions he does have are relatively harmless, like his assumption that all black people like soul music and fried chicken.
Is this not profoundly unbelievable? Tony Lip may be a good guy at heart, but he’s no progressive, and working for a Don Shirley would give him serious pause. There is no way he would go from viewing black people as tainted and toxic — throwing something they touched into the garbage — to being entirely open-minded. It’s magical realism.
But viewers, whether they like “Green Book” or not, accept this gap because we’ve always accepted it. We either don’t expect or don’t want to know how white folks work through — or don’t — their own everyday racism. Instead we see extremes: white people who are villains or heroes when it comes to race. Sometimes, like Tony, they do transform dramatically. But we never see the transformation, that vast gray landscape between villain and hero. In Tony, we see a man who can’t bear to put his lips where a black person’s have been, and a few scenes later, we see a man doing battle with a restaurant manager who refuses to serve Don Shirley.
In real life, despite the mainstreaming of white nationalism in recent years, most Americans are loath to admit ever having been racist, and certainly to still harboring any racial animus. Very likely it’s because of the shame such a notion invokes, or guilt, or resentment. The intimate story of white racism remains disconcerting, and disorienting. But it’s crucial to see and hear the stories of how white racial attitudes play out, how they change.
The white heroism/villainy binary is increasingly a real political problem. We decry as villains public figures who have sported blackface in the past, like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and call for their resignations. But a great majority of white people were and may still be complicit in racism, especially those in the South. Some of them have evolved, some have not; many are probably still mid-journey.
A larger truth suggested but ignored in “Green Book” is that racism has distorted the outlook and behavior of whites not just in the South, but in the whole nation as well. Whites are not heroes or villains so much as they are the beneficiaries of an oppressive system created by fellow whites. The degree to which they acquiesce to that system, whether in 1962 or now, is the great untold story of the color line that rarely is examined. True, we don’t have a lot of models for such a story; America never really integrated, which means white people can often remain oblivious to racial divisions. They have few reasons to grapple with their own racial attitudes, to disassemble them and see where they fall on the spectrum. How alarming it would be to discover that even if you’re not a bona fide racist, your incremental evolution still leaves plenty of room for racist behavior — a far more common state, I suspect, than being either villain or hero.
Gradual evolution and self-examination may not make for feel-good stories, but they are stories that desperately need to be told, in Hollywood and the real world. In groundbreaking movies like “BlacKkKlansman” and even the glorious “Black Panther,” black filmmakers are seizing control of their stories, in part by looking at intragroup nuances that are not always flattering or resolvable. It is beyond time for whites to do the same.