Looking back at last year's Best Picture winner and the complicated legacy it leaves behind.
Hollywood has long struggled with how to portray race on film. Historic films such as Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer are held up as icons of both the art of film and of racism. In the last few decades, Hollywood has made a genuine shift towards more race-sensitive films, including classics such as Crash, Remember the Titans, and Driving Miss Daisy. Pete Farrelly's Green Book continues this tradition of great films about racism that were created by, and for, white people. Unfortunately, in an era of innovative black cinema and black filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and Steve McQueen, these films about racism need to be reevaluated in a new context. Green Book is a tremendous movie in many ways but it falls into similar traps as its predecessors, including a tendency towards saccharine endings, surface-level understanding of racism, simplistic solutions, a racist redemption story, and most importantly, a subscription to the dangerous theory of uplift-suasion. Uplift-suasion is a fallacy almost as old as America itself. The theory goes: in order to win over the racist whites, black Americans simply have to prove themselves as model citizens. This puts the onus of racism on the victims and not the perpetrators. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in his history of racism in America, “Stamped From the Beginning,” explains this thinking. The philosophy has been adapted by black and white Americans and is often showcased in well-meaning films like Green Book. The problem with uplift-suasion is that racists won't see black athletes, musicians, or artists as representative of a strong and dynamic group of people, but as exceptions to the norm-- exceptions to be exploited and showcased for the entertainment of white society. In fairness, Green Book addresses this reality as Mahershala Ali’s character recognizes his status as a showpiece to his wealthy white patrons. The overt moral of the story, however, continues to promote uplift-suasion as the correct choice for black Americans looking to change racist attitudes. Perhaps Dr. Shirley didn't change everyone's minds, but by being a model citizen and entertainer, he was able to win the heart of at least one racist. Movies by black filmmakers have done so much more to satisfy audiences without sugarcoating the truth. Sorry to Bother You, a picture snubbed by the Academy last year, spoke truth to power in a truly innovative and entertaining way. Black Panther allowed viewers to see an Africa unsullied by imperialism with a nearly all black cast of strong men and women. If Beale Street Could Talk gave the audience a beautiful love story between well-rounded characters while still educating the audience that racism has not been overcome and that the fight against it must continue. Green Book is a great movie, but it continues to act as though racism can be overcome with friendship, when in reality, even friends can say hurtful, racist things, and not realize it's wrong thanks to 500 years of ingrained, systemic, accepted racist thought. Movies should challenge our perceptions, not simply state that everything will be OK if we just get to know each other.
It’s easy to see why these narratives are popular. For those who don’t want to think about or discuss racism in 2020, these narratives offer a comforting solution of colorblindness. Unfortunately, to say you are colorblind is to say that you are ignorant of all of the strife that still exists today.
Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Boots Riley, Jordan Peele, and Spike Lee. These artists deserve our attention and our recognition for what they are contributing to the world of cinema. While Green Book and other films about extraordinary men and women of color should continue to be made, we must always balance them with work from black artists who truly understand the black experience. Yes, I am a white man. I will never truly understand what it is to be a person of color. But I hope that these filmmakers will continue to do their best to help me understand. And I truly hope that in the future, movies like Beale Street and Sorry to Bother You will get as much recognition as films like Green Book. Maybe add one more line or two to wrap up.