Sunday, May 19, 2019

When History Collides With Cinematic License-The Strange Saga Of “Green Book” (2018)-A Film Review

When History Collides With Cinematic License-The Strange Saga Of “Green Book” (2018)-A Film Review 

DVD Review

By Frank Jackman,

The genesis of this film review of the Oscar-winning Best Picture Green Room at this publication is indeed a strange saga. The review was originally assigned to younger writer Sarah Lemoyne who after viewing it told the assignment editor that she did not feel that she could do an adequate review because she was totally clueless about the social and racial reality, North and South in 1962 the period which anchors the film. She did not know, could not believe that in those days black people, then called Negroes mostly (or worse “n” worse in redneck society and not just there) could not find public accommodation in the South (housing, dining, going to the restroom for Chrissake). Had to depend on the prior experience Green Book to navigate the Jim Crow South, and not just there when travelling below the Mason-Dixon line. Sarah although she was aware of the historic black civil rights movement had no idea that it was a fight for the ability not only to vote, but to eat (many Woolworth 5&10 sit-ins for example), sleep (separate but not equal hotels) or piss (very visible signs at toilets saying where “colored” could do so) wherever you landed in this great country. Having told her story to the assignment editor he decided that one of the older writers, me, should do the review to have someone do the piece who at least have some connection with those uproarious times.

(In Sarah’s defense she did a recent article on the Frida Kahlo-Toulouse-Lautrec  using her art classes background to pick up some very interesting information about this pair and their troubled relationship something I don’t know anything about so things have worked out okay in that regard although I will admit I still wonder how a true Latina beauty life Frida ever got her claws into the ugly debauched Toulouse, and why.)  

Frankly, and this only adds to the strangeness of the saga around putting this review out, I had my own personal hard time trying to figure out a “hook” to latch onto here. This centrally is a story in post-Black Lives Matter terms about “travelling while black” down in the South in the days when that was at best an iffy proposition and one had better have an updated copy of the Green Book at the ready. Obviously, any cinematic story, fiction or as here based on a true story, can be worked any way the director and producers want to with the story.1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965 were the heart of the black civil rights movement, the time especially in the North when people started to hear about alarming stuff going on against black people in the South in their movement to vote and get rid of Jim Crow which had started to build up steam in the mid-1950s.

Probably the most dramatic event that appeared on the black and white television most of us looked those days was when the cops down in Birmingham, Alabama (a city where the main characters here finished their trip at before heading North) fire-hosing and putting the rabid dogs on young black children protesting the Jim Crow conditions. The film while dealing with some individual manifestations of what was faced by the lead character Don Shirley as he tried to navigate the rigid routine racism rules of the South pretty much ignored the social turbulence that drove him to make his own racial statements. I will give examples below as I dissect the story line.     

Adding to this conundrum is what had been called elsewhere by other commentators the “white savior” or buddy aspects of the film. The lowly driver saving the boss’ ass in reverse. Those points probably would make more sense if I gave a run at the storyline which in the end as far as worthwhile entertainment went was well worth the couple of hours of viewing. Tony Lip, not Tony the Lip by the way, is an Italian, well let’s call him a handyman, in the old days and enforcer, who keeps order when the crazies get their liquor highs and weed-infested higher up at the Copa, Copacabana the now long- gone bright light night club in New York City run by very “connected” guys. Apparently there was no union to force concessions or concern for employees’ fortunes by management when the joint was closed for repairs for a couple of months (and it really was a joint with over-the-top prices for cheapjack liquor, some say watered down to just above apple juice level and so-so surf and turf entrees featuring music by otherwise unemployable singers like Bobby Rydell (nee Rizzo, maybe Ratso’s spawn) after he had his moment of fame on the rock charts when rock and roll was in one of its periods of decline). See though Tony Lip was from hunger, had a wife a couple of kids to support and therefore needed some kind of work. A guy in Lip’s line of work though is pretty limited into what he can take on although the guys in the neighborhood, the capos as it turned out would have provided him with plenty of work helping guys sleep with the fishes. (courtesy of some beautiful Godfather’s okay).

Word gets around though when you have a guy like Lip who can handle himself and keep standing and so he gets a referral for a driver’s job, you know, a chauffeur. That may seem beneath a guy like Lip’s abilities but there was a hitch. Two really, no three. First the guy he was supposed to drive for, the famous pianist Don Shirley, was in a memorable term for black people among Italians then although I had heard the “n” word used more among the Italian guys I knew who hung around Tonio’s Pizza Parlor in North Adamsville when I was in high school which I will use, an eggplant. Secondly Lip made it very obvious that he did not like eggplants (a dramatic scene when a couple of black guys were working in his house and given water in glasses by his wife caused Lip to seize up and throw the damn things in the trash barrel). Thirdly, this so-called high-toned piano player planned a concert tour of the South in 1962 when all hell was breaking out down there with the explosion of the black civil rights movement to prove, well, to prove that with a certain personal dignity that he was ready in his private way to break Jim Crow. (By the way down in deep Jim Crow territory they had only slightly less love for Italians, Roman Catholic Italians, than eggplants, blacks so Lip will have to be ready not only to enforce for Din but keep his own ass dry).

This Don Shirley, trained in Leningrad by the best they had (now Saint Petersburg so remember we are also talking about deep in the Cold War) who learned some manners and some, well, airs too. Don would be what Harold Cruse called using the respectful term of the time, the “new Negro” or W.E.B. Dubois “the talented tenth” who would lead the struggle to break Jim Crow and attain some level of racial equality. The problem, the 1962 problem for Don is that his aloofness from his people left him with some serious identity problems “solved” by many bottles of Cutty Sawk. He stated his case pretty well one Lip confrontational night when he in anguish said he was not black enough, white enough, or man enough (finding out he was gay via police lock-up gay interlude) for anybody. His alienation hit home (and also made me mad) when Lip had stopped the car for some reason when they were in the Deep South and some woe begotten share- croppers were tending the fields across the way. They and Don might have been on two different planets. The mad on my part was at the film’s director/producers for it was exactly people like those sharecroppers, working people in those Birmingham steel mills and along the waterfronts who were the backbone, the infrastructure of the movement. Some short-change there.   

I mentioned earlier that there is continuing controversy around the themes of this film, the Lip “white savior” aspect. No question that the unworldly Don Shirley would have never gotten out of the South then, Green Book guidance or not, without an enforcer like Lip. For example, one night Don decided to go for a drink in some redneck bar in Kentucky and would have been beaten to death without the timely intervention of Lip. There were many other situations like that as well especially when Don decided to go cruising for some gay love (and wound up in the jailhouse). This saving his ass by Lip time after time is the genesis of the “white savior” criticism.

As is well know there have been a million versions of the budding buddy story (and in post-Thelma and Louise times on the distaff side as well.) This pairing is as improbable as it gets as the upscale (hell he has an apartment over Carnegie Hall) black man meets street smart and street surviving (as important) Lip. They also may have been on different planets starting out but through the two months they are together they become, I guess, friends, although on the historical record and despite captions at the end stating they were friends until they died there is some question about that. Sometimes though you can like a film despite sensing something is out of kilter. That is the case here and although other films were Oscar-worthy this one doesn’t have anything to apologize for in that regard.

No comments:

Post a Comment