When Green Book premiered in theaters, one of the biggest complaints of the film was a simple and egregious oversight: Despite the title of the film, not one black person is seen actually touching the book which inspired the film’s title.
On Sunday night, February 24, Green Book took home three major Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.
“We made this film with love. And we made it with tenderness. And we made it with respect,” said producer Jim Burke onstage when Green Book took home the Academy’s highest honor, Best Picture.
Can the film be respectful if it isn’t accurate, though? Not to say a dramatized biopic is typically 100% accurate (it’s not), but the least a filmmaker can do with a film entitled Green Book is give the very people the book belonged to the agency they deserve. Instead, we got an improperly titled film from the perspective of a white man.
However, if we want to actually learn more about the Green Book (fully titled The Negro Motorist Green-Book) as a historical artifact, this is why documentaries exist.
Per Smithsonian Channel’s press release:
On the heels of the Golden Globe® winning [and now, Academy Award winning] film Green Book , Smithsonian Channel is taking a deeper look into the real story of The Negro Motorist Green Book during the Jim Crow era and beyond. The Green Book: Guide to Freedom tells the story of Victor H. Green’s eponymously named travel guide that allowed African Americans to safely tour the country during a time of severe institutionalized racism. The film features a wide array of experts delving into the history of The Green Book – historians, business owners and individuals who experienced first-hand the phenomenon of “traveling while black” in pre-civil rights America. Written and directed by acclaimed documentarian Yoruba Richen, the filmmaker behind The New Black, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom looks at the daily realities that African Americans faced on the road – the struggles, indignities and dangers, but also the opportunities and triumphs that were won along the way.
Via phone, I spoke with Richen about what her documentary clears up in comparison to the dramatized film, what she learned while making her film, and what she hopes people gain from what will likely be new knowledge about the Green Book.
“Making a film is always a challenge to figure out how to tell the story in the most effective, beautiful, entertaining, [and] informative way,” Richen noted. “The way it started was, a production company came to me—Impossible Factual, they’re based in London—and they had an idea to do a documentary about the Green Book. I had never heard of the Green Book actually, before. We started talking [a couple summers ago] and I was immediately interested and intrigued precisely because I hadn’t heard of it. And I always say I’ve felt I knew my African-American history, but this is one aspect that I didn’t know, and [it] seemed such a great way of delving into a lot of the different themes that we talk about and explore in the film [such as] entrepreneurship in the African-American community, women business owners, the rise of the middle class and what the automobile meant to African Americans.”
I, like Richen, was vastly unfamiliar with the Green Book before news of the Oscar-winning film surfaced. I vaguely remember seeing an image of it before somewhere (Maybe in a museum as a child? Or in a magazine?), but didn’t know the full story behind it.
“There’s so much that I learned, what was surprising to me was [the interviewees spoke on] how this book created a community,” Richen added, musing on what surprised her while helming the documentary. “So, you have the Green Book and you know that it’s published from 1936 to 1967, but really the the gravity of what’s in it is really what surprised me. There are listings, but then, it also had a map. One of our subjects says that in the film—[it’s] a parallel universe that’s created of business owners and places that we can go [for] vacation, recreation and pleasure and it created this community for African Americans.”
While watching the film, the most striking thing was the aforementioned reverence and agency given to the very black folks who used and benefited from the Green Book. Unlike in Green Book, subjects of the Green Book: Guide to Freedom were literally holding the book in their hands as they answered questions, reminiscing on their “guide to freedom.” The contrast was palpable, and I had to point out to Richen what a key difference it made.
“Exactly. The other part of it, too, is that the places that they showed in the film are just not nice places and that’s not all that was in the Green Book,” Richen noted. “The Gaston Motel, which we talked about in the film, was called the finest black hotel in the country. So, that was also frustrating.”
Richen also noted how Green Book only portrayed Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) using the Green Book in the South. In fact, Richen added that the Green Book was especially useful in the North, which didn’t have the explicit displays of segregation such as “Whites Only/Coloreds Only” signs.
“I think that’s part of the mythology we have in this country— that racism or segregation was only in the South,” she said. “The Green Book was created in New York by a New Yorker, and he lived in Harlem in 1936 and there are places in Harlem that black people were not allowed to go into.”
We also spoke about the emotions she confronted while shooting this documentary—the “sundown town” stories, stories of black entrepreneurs and visiting the stunning one-time black elite retreat of Idlewild, Michigan.
Keep an eye on Richen, as she’s currently working on a short about “an unsolved civil rights murder in Mississippi” titled American Reckoning. As far as another dramatized film about the Green Book, naturally, Richen would like to see a film produced from Dr. Shirley’s perspective.
The Green Book: Guide to Freedom premieres Monday, February 25 on the Smithsonian Channel. It is also available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app.