Representations of the Black Experience from the Inside-out and the Outside-in
Two films that, on the surface, may share some ostensible similarities – a bi-racial road-trip to the Deep South leading to encounters with the post-bellum Jim Crow mentality entrenched there (even to this day) – reveal, on deeper analysis, discourses emerging from dialectically-opposed paradigms. Green Book (Farrelly, 2018), is a meat-and-two-veg road movie about an ‘odd couple’ starring a beefed up Viggo Mortensen as Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, and an awards-friendly performance from Mahershala Ali as Dr Shirley, a genius pianist of aristocratic bent. Lip, an artless ‘rough diamond’ from the Bronx, is hired to drive the talented, fussy Doc to a series of elite music venues in the Deep South, acting as driver, fixer and bodyguard. On one level it is class comedy, as each scenario offers amusing contrasts between the two very different sensibilities. Yet, the further south they go, the greater the racism (it is undoubtedly there in the north but often depicted, in the film at least, as unconscious bias rather than out-and-out hostility and American Apartheid ). The titular ‘Green Book’ is used to orientate to ‘colored’ accommodation. The contrast with the elegant concert halls is sobering, a shocking demi-monde haunted by the ‘Negro’ underclass, but more so the increasingly antagonistic treatment by the locals. This should all feel awful, but sadly seems wearily predictable – both the racism and the plot. Without risk of ‘spoilers’ you just know that Lip and Shirley will bond in the end and overcome adversity together. So far, so safe. Although ostensibly ‘tackling’ racism, Green Book shows itself repeatedly to be cloth-eared to it. It has the authentic sincerity of an 80s protest song – shallow and virtue-signalling. Farrelly’s film is a feel-good movie for white liberals: white man saves the day and we can all go home feeling we’ve done something worthy. But this movie does not destabilise the status quo but reinforces it. However great the performances of both Mortensen and Ali, this cannot redeem the normalisation of racism that occurs frequently in the first act: we are still expected to identify with Lip even though he wishes to throw away glasses used by black workmen, and shows unapologetic schadenfreude in forcing the elderly Asian butler to pack the suitcases. Worse, Lip is shown ‘educating’ Shirley about ‘black culture’, stereotyped as fried chicken and pop music, claiming outrageously to be ‘more black than he was’. The lonely, but dignified Doctor is reduced to being ‘grateful’ for the pale saviour: crumbs from the table of white privilege. It is meant to be the emotional pay-off, a schmaltzy ‘heart-warming message’ that misfires in a disturbing way. Green Book offers a smooth ride – the period detail, the depiction of Italian-American life, the impressive musical set-pieces – but ultimately we are taken to a dead-end.
In Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) we are in a very different universe: here, the full horror of racism is unmasked. It is a movie that is hyper-alert to everyday racism; to unconscious and conscious bias; to the power discourses of white America. It tracks a couple – a black photographer, Chris Washington, played with visceral conviction by British-actor Daniel Kaluuya, and his pretty white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (a deceptive performance by Allison Williams) – who return to the Armitage home in the Deep South for the much-dreaded ‘meet the parents’ encounter. This is problematised by the discovery that they do not know their beloved daughter has a black boyfriend. Rose reassures Chris that they are Obama-voting liberals, yet, without giving it away, nothing is what it seems. Things go rapidly ‘south’ in many ways. The use of the Horror genre effectively shocks the audience into the true horror of racism, and its ugly bedfellows – white supremacy and eugenics. It could be a companion piece to Spike Lee’s award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018). Both depict the reality of race in America from a black perspective (Peele; Lee) – vastly different in tone to the tone-deaf quality of Green Book. Farrelly’s movie offers a threadbare comfort blanket in a world where the Alt-Right is not only on the rise, but already in government, or hugely influential on those which are. Whileas, in the deeply unsettling world of Get Out the audience is strapped into the chair and forced to watch the nightmare unfold. Green Book hypnotizes us with its lush visuals and cool soundtrack – and before we know it, where are in the Dismal Sink of acceptance. We become, like Washington’s character, voyeurs in the void, watching the horror of the white world diminish away to a mere rectangle in the dark.
Farrelly’s film attempts to, ludicrously, ‘solve’ racism with a road-trip, whileas Peele’s film instaurates racism’s full horror – a horror we are all complicit in. The ending of both is telling of this diametrically-opposed vision of reality: while the former ends with a friendly cop helping to fix a tyre in the snow, the latter ends with the TSA friend extracting Washington from the blood-bath (a Grand Guignol scene which, if an actual cop had arrived, would have ended very differently). In Green Book, the status quo is restored (the institutional racism of the police force is white-washed out), whileas in Get Out the ‘old/new normal’ is: survival in a hostile world.
In theory, in a highly toxic cultural and political landscape where the Far Right regain the prominence and influence of the 1930s, and xenophobic and divisive voices are regularly given platforms in the media, one should applaud any film that tries to send out a message of multi-cultural ‘tolerance’, yet such insipid good intentions pave the way to Nazi Hell. We need the provocative (and successful) films of Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and others, to shock the audience awake.
A footnote to this: Jordan Peele is directing a serialisation of Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, Lovecraft Country’ (2016) for Netflix (with JJ Abrams producing) and in that a road-trip to the Maine Coast associated with Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos is navigated by use of ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, a fictionalised version of the ‘Green Book’. On the surface, a mash-up of the two main films discussed above, but with Peele at the wheel, Lovecraft Country promises to be a very different beast to Farrelly’s glib excursion. Watch this space.
Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019