“Green Book” is just a small slice of racial discrimination

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 27, 2019

“Green Book” is winning awards but not much praise from film critics and civil rights activists. “Green Book” is a sweet, true story of Don Shirley, a black classical pianist who hires Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a Brooklyn bouncer, as his driver for a concert tour of the American South in 1962.

A deep friendship evolved over their road trip that lasted until they both died in 2013. The film won this year’s People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy. It appears to be a front-runner for an Oscar.

“Green Book” is full of stereotypes, including Tony’s mob dialect, a joke about fried chicken and the proverbial odd couple on a road trip. The clichés may represent actual elements in the evolving friendship between two unlikely travel companions, but they are are still stereotypes.

It is a “feel good movie,” but it’s not the whole story of travel in the South in 1962. The title is a reference to “The Negro-Motorist Green-Book,” published by Victor Green from 1936-1966. The book listed services and accommodations that were relatively friendly to African Americans during that time. Twenty-three digitized editions have been published.

Make no mistake about it, the “Green Book” was a necessary travel guide because of Jim Crow segregation and the unsafe public transportation and public accommodation. This was the era of Freedom Rides, black church bombings and bus boycotts.

The 1954 edition listed five entries for Columbia — the Austin House at 103 E. Walnut St, three tourist homes and one beauty shop. The 1940 edition listed only two tourist homes.

In the film, Shirley is a classical pianist who is privileged and sophisticated, while Tony Lip is working-class bouncer from Brooklyn who is comfortable with who he is, despite his flaws. Shirley does a masterful job of polishing Tony’s rough edges, even helping him write better love letters to his wife. Shirley sees humor and humanity in Tony’s roughness as he continues to search for his own identify — “not black enough, not white enough, not man enough” to fit in anywhere.

The arc of the movie brackets two events in Tony’s apartment just three months apart — Tony’s fussy disposal of drinking glasses used by two black plumbers and Shirley’s welcome Christmas visit after they return from their swing through the South. Over those three months, their shared experience leads to a close friendship when external events force them to slow down and pay attention to one another.

Schools, sports, war, protest demonstrations and other common ground promote the discovery of similar kinship between blacks and whites. Most of us haven’t had enough of these bonding experiences to realize they are possible.

Initial film reviews dismissed “Green Book” as a reverse “Driving Miss Daisy” (circa 1989) and suggested it was designed as “Oscar bait.” Some film critics knock the movie for being written from “a white perspective” — Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga, co-wrote “Green Book” based on conversations with his father and Shirley.

There has also been criticism that the writers and the director did not reach out to Shirley’s surviving siblings until after the movie was filmed.
Other criticism has focused on the title, arguing that it is inaccurate and misleading. These critics say the story is too narrow to represent the historically significant title. One reviewer commented that the book title was only a gimmick. If the movie had been named “Two New York Guys Take a Road Trip Through the South” would the criticism have been prevented?

Actually, the question should be: Is the movie honest and respectful regardless of who wrote it and with whom the producers conferred? I’d say, yes. The movie fully respects the story and its characters.

The Rotten Tomatoes index (the percentage of professional critics who like the movie) seems to represent the majority. It gives “Green Book” a score of 82, lower than the 97 for “Black Panther” and 93 for both “Hidden Figures” and “Blindspotting,” but higher than “The Help” (75) and “The Blind Side” (63).

There is no question that “Green Book” has had impact. With its wide popularity, it cannot help but increase awareness of the everyday hardship of racial discrimination. In addition to learning about the history of the “Green Book,” viewers will be exposed to Don Shirley and his music and to the existence of sundown towns across the South and Midwest where signs were posted to exclude nonwhites.

Perhaps the movie will generate documentaries about the book, Don Shirley and sundown towns.

Mitt Romney may be our brightest ray of hope

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 11, 2019

In a year that is treading toward a national political crisis of one sort or another, the best, perhaps only, ray of hope may be the experienced politician, but novice senator, Mitt Romney, a life-long Republican now representing Utah. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 presidential candidate, kicked off the new year with a Jan. 1 op-ed in the Washington Post explaining the way he will deal with President Donald Trump.

Romney is now a member of the political institution that is our best hope for restoring American democracy. Because of his personal stature and his solid political base in Utah, Romney is well-positioned to push the Republican leadership of the Senate to act like a Senate rather than a rubber stamp for the president.

Romney’s op-ed is consistent with a bipartisan group of 44 former senators (whom I wrote about). That group is pleading for the U.S. Senate to step up and serve its constitutional responsibilities. Most of the media coverage of Romney’s op-ed focused on his clear criticisms of Trump by writing, “The president shapes the public character of the nation and Trump’s character falls short.”

While Romney certainly wrote that, he also offered his agreement with Trump’s policies to aligning corporate income taxes with other nations; he repeated his praise for Trump’s objecting to China’s trade practices; and he praises Trump’s support criminal justice reform.

Romney supported many of Trump original cabinet secretaries, but he is concerned about high-level resignations at years-end. Perhaps Romney’s biggest concern is the loss of America’s national prestige around the world. Romney cites a Pew Research Center poll finding that only 16 percent of people in Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Sweden believed the American president would “do the right thing in world affairs.” It was 84 percent in 2016.

Since Trump was inaugurated Jan. 20, 2017, I have resisted the urge to refer to him as “not my president.” For better or worse, he is my president, but I have listened and looked for a unifying principal that most reasonable political officials could embrace, and citizens rally around.

In his op ed, Romney offers the best declaration I have seen. He writes:
“I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”

This is old-fashioned talk. We need more of it. Romney does not write about “appealing to his (nor his party’s) base,” “looking strong,” “positioning for 2020” or “strengthening the president.” For centuries, political philosophers have struggled with the responsibilities of representatives and asked heavy questions such as, “should they promote the national interest or local interest?” But “appealing to their base” does not appear in the classics.

Romney is right that his duty is not to protect the president nor to demean him but to focus on his state’s and the nation’s interests. Romney is right that he should focus on “significant actions” rather than seeking to become a mainstay of the media by commenting on the president’s daily tweets. Romney is right that fundamental norms of courtesy and mutual respect must be restored in a democratic society. Surely all elected officials can agree with him.
The concept of “appealing to his/her base” has become a fashionable and acceptable justification not merely an explanation for narrow, self-interested political behavior over the past generation.

Politicians used to talk about “doing what was in the interests of their constituents.” Now they talk about “being able to justify their decisions to their base.” The reasons are many, and I blame my political science discipline for its collective contribution, but the result has not been good for American democracy.

With the U.S. government shut down, our president using the trappings of the Oval Office for a make-pretend national emergency, and the American media apparently preferring to report Trump’s tweets rather than the condition of our roads and schools, China and the rest of the world moves on.

The rest of the world is developing their infrastructure, learning how to deal with an unreliable U.S. as a global partner and building their own trade networks. History marches on. Some day historians will be asking, “What the heck were Americans thinking back in 2019?”