Op-Ed: The Green Book Is Divisive, And Maybe That’s A Good Thing.

“The Green Book,” a movie about a white New York bouncer that drives a gifted New York black pianist in the deep south through a concert tour during the Jim Crow 60’s.

The movie has three won Golden Globe awards and of course, like many movies that deal with racial issues in America, has caused some bit of controversy.

The controversy surrounds not only the actual facts of the movie (such as the main character’s estrangement from his family, a fiction his family has reported) but more interestingly the Hollywood perpetuated story of the white man saving the “magical negro.”

Think Sandra Bullock saving the gifted “magical” black athlete in the “Blind Side,” Sidney Poitier as “magical negro” in “The Defiant Ones,” or Whoopie Goldberg in “Ghost” to get an idea of what the magical negro idea is all about.

And while there may be some truth to Hollywood’s tendency to write stories that appear to have similar themes, I tend to not have serious problems with stories like “The Green Book,” specifically because they introduce, gently, subjects that might be lost to the current generation that would otherwise have been forgotten to time.

Consider just some of the topics that most young people are unaware of that come out of The Green Book:

  • The Green Book itself, a brochure that listed “safe” motels that allowed blacks as guests traveling in a South where blacks were not welcome to mingle with whites in many places.
  • Don Shirley, a gifted black jazz pianist. Had you ever heard of him before this movie came out? Probably not. Now, you have. Now you can look him up on iTunes, or Amazon Prime and enjoy his work.

And while the story in the movie is probably best sanitized to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, now we can open up the audio vaults on Don Shirley recordings, and students can research the Green Book itself.

(I strongly doubt if CBS News would have done a segment on it’s Sunday Morning News, which caters to a pretty white beyond middle class audience, about the Green Book if the movie had not been made.) Check it out here. 

I like it when modern artists look at older artists and story tellers and reinterpret their work or tell a story that has never been told to a wide audience. This allows a whole new generation access to the art they may not have been interested in previously.

I once got into a discussion with a friend of mine about Rod Stewart recording the Tom Waits song, “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen).” He said that Rod Stewart ruined the song. I said that Rod Stewart had just introduced Tom Waits to his millions of fans. Maybe a few them will now become Tom Waits fans. Tom Waits should be thankful. Making an idea or work of art available to many, even if it requires removing some of the gray areas, isn’t always a bad thing.

In my time when a singer like, Linda Ronstadt made several albums of songs from the great American songbook, it did not lessen the originals, but introduces older songs to an entirely new generation of listeners who probably would have never heard them before. Who was that Nelson Riddle? Who was Lerner and Lowe? Who was Bing Crosby?

Those new listeners, hopefully, will now be curious enough to go back and listen to the original recordings. Maybe a fan or two will be born. Rod Steward did a favor to Tom Waits.

So I didn’t have that much of a problem if a semi-fictitious story about a real person pushes the truth, if in the end, the audience is introduced positively to someone new, or something new. I suspect that visits to Wikipedia for Don Shirley and the Green Book went up exponentially after the release of the movie. That is what art does: it gets people thinking.

For some, the Green Book is divisive. To me, when people are talking about something they normally wouldn’t talk about, thats a good thing.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.