Green Book’s controvesy and why we talk about race in movies

Please welcome a new friend to the Blog, Ron Dawson. Ron is a filmmaker and managing editor of The Insider, the video collaboration site’s leading online educational resource for post production professionals.  Ron has also hosted numerous podcasts, including Radio Film School (which is like “This American Life” for filmmakers) and the 1-on-1 filmmaking interview podcast, Crossing the 180. We had a virtual sit-down to talk about race in movies.

Brian Russell: Hey Ron — welcome to the Blog. Super excited to have you along for the ride, and get your perspective. Following this years Oscars, I posted my version of Oscar trophies that I felt “should have been.” In the comments, the subject of race came up over Green Book’s controversial Best Picture win. I commented “Green Book was a fine movie but more about making white people feel good than any sort of serious commentary. BlacKkKlansman Would have been a far better choice. Blindspotting would’ve been better still.”

And of course, since it was Facebook, and since it is 2019, one of my Facebook “Friends” responded with this:

Comment on Facebook by a “Friend”: Brian Russell, why is race mentioned when reviewing movies? Why can’t we just enjoy a story for what it is?? It’s entertainment, not meant for serious commentary on everything. I pay my money to be entertained, not lectured. Sorry Brian, I have to disagree. I thought Green Book was a good story for EVERYONE.

Ron Dawson: Excuse me Brian while I step outside to barf up my insides. I’ll be right back….

Okay. I’m back. Honestly, I don’t even want to waste one vital minute of my precious time on this Earth addressing a comment so inane, so dense, so ignorant, so totally lost, it would be like having a conversation with a five year old about quantum mechanics and string theory. I swear! I don’t even know what to do with something so utterly silly. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “It’s just so reeeee-deee-culous.” Since when is art ONLY meant for entertainment? Let alone filmmaking! WTF man!! Where is this woman from? You see Brian. You got me all agitated. I’m going to have to take another break and meditate….

Okay. I’m breathing better now. Now. Go on. I apologize for my mini-tirade.

BR: Yeah — I hear you. It got my blood boiling as well! As you may suspect, she in fact was not interested in my responses or hearing another side of the argument, and she deleted her comments and opted to just check out of the discussion. So I reached out to you Ron, and decided to write this post. While Green Book was the jumping off point, what we are really talking about is how we deal with race in film, and why we should talk about it.

RD: You would have to be sleeping under a very big rock to not know why discussions of race in this country (the United States) are as important today as ever. Hell, forget about the U.S., go into any major metropolitan area composed of a variety of people and I bet you a million Ferengi cubits race is an issue (Oh. I’m sorry. Are random black nerd Star Trek joke aloud on this blog).

BR: Oh not to worry … this white nerd fully get’s the Ferengi joke. DS9 was the best post-classic Trek show after all! But we digress.

RD: First of all, did you just say DS9 was the best post-classic Trek show? We’re gonna need a whole ‘nuther blog post to get into that craziness. 🙂 But I shall refrain from derailing this discussion.

Now, back to the point at hand. I must admit, I haven’t watched Green Book yet, so in good conscience, I can’t comment on it. But, a common refrain I’ve read online, heard on podcasts, or heard from friends in the biz is that it was a “make white people feel good” kind of movie. Again, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say.

But you’re absolutely right. From the birth of film, it was used as a way to generate discussion. The Lumiere Brothers of the late 19th century France are credited with being the “fathers” of filmmaking. The very first films they produced were short documentaries. You have D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” which, besides being a technical marvel in its day, was pretty much a promotional video for the f-ing Ku Klux Klan. You have the propaganda films of Hitler’s 3rd Reich scapegoating the Jews. The filmography of Oscar Micheaux, lauded as the first African American feature filmmaker, rose to fame creating films that spoke to the African American experience. And how many different museum and programs related to the Holocaust did “Schindler’s List” help create? For anyone to say that a movie should strictly be “entertainment” and not have to be about race is as looney as trying to have a political debate with a Borg.

And to say you shouldn’t comment about race regarding a movie that is SPECIFICALLY ABOUT RACE. Again. I’m still flipping out over your “friend’s” comment. That woman just ain’t right in the head.

BR: Yeah, I’m with you. Even “popcorn” movies like Star Wars have something to say. And in 2018 there happened to be a large number of movies that addressed and discussed serious societal issues and DESERVE our discussion and commentary. And yes, we can learn about ourselves while being entertained. But entertainment is in no way negated by commentary. I loved watching Green Book. It was an entertaining film all the while it was telling us that if we get to know someone our preconceived notions may be challenged and even wiped away. It made me feel good. It made me smile. It made me think how horrible those southern racists were. It made me feel good about not being a racist. Oh yeah … that just might be the problem.

RD: And therein lies the rub, right? One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. is from his letter from a Birmingham jail. I really wish more people would read that letter. MLK was a lot more harsh on his white brothers and sisters than many people today think. People like to always contrast MLK and Malcolm X as these two divergent forces of nature in the civil rights area. But, the two were more aligned on things than I think many people nowadays would care to admit. In that letter, King writes:

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”;

In short, the people who “think” they are allies for the cause of racial reconciliation are often the greatest hindrances. Either they are too comfortable in their privilege to have the empathy needed to take and support change; or they lack the ability to take a good, long look at how their own prejudices affect the progress of racial reconciliation.

You see a movie like Green Book, and you walk away feeling good about yourself and your stances on race; then get upset when someone challenges you to think that maybe, everything is not as rosy as you think. And maybe, you’re not as “innocent” as you think.

I had a similar eye-opening experience with respect to gender equality issues. A couple of years ago I produced a mini-series on Radio Film School called  “Breaking the Glass.” It was a series of audio and film episodes addressing, primarily, gender equality (or the lack thereof) in Hollywood. As much as I was (and am) an ally for women’s issues, I learned a lot about things I do and say that can actually hurt the cause. It was uncomfortable to hear sometimes, but I’m glad I did. And I am a better advocate today because of that.

All that to say, I know first hand how difficult it can be holding up a mirror.

BR: I remember listening to those episodes. Sometimes we all get tired of looking in the mirror, but that series specifically challenged the way I viewed the opportunities for women in my business. MLK has been co-opted by white people for Black History Month, and we are “guided” towards the comfortable and easy parts of his legacy. To me the problem with all movies like Green Book (think Driving Miss Daisy, Soul Man, Hidden Figures, etc.) is that they do not challenge us to look beyond our own limited experience. The Oscars are about celebrating the best in film achievement, not simply the films that make us feel the best.

This kind of film creates a very “black and white” (pun very much intended) picture of racism. Not to mention another example of a white savior. Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip literally teaches Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Shirley how to eat fried chicken. This is Tony’s stereotypical idea of what it means to be black. It is played for a laugh but actually reinforces a stereotype while pretending to fight it at the same time.

RD: Yeah. I’ve heard about the scene. I also heard how Dr. Shirley’s family (the character he plays in the movie) is not at all happy.

But here’s the thing: Mahershala took the role. Octavia Spencer is an executive producer. Are they blind to these issues? Were these issues not apparent in the script? Was there something about the story that made them take it on, regardless? I don’t know. I haven’t done enough research. But, if nothing else, it dispels another myth: that African-Americans are some monolithic entity that all think, act and move alike. Like some kind of Borg collective (I’m just rackin’ up the Trek references left and right!) Believe it or not, some black people didn’t think “Black Panther” should’ve gotten at “best pic” nomination.

BR: I have to believe Ali and Spencer got behind the movie because they believed in it, and I am also pretty sure they did not intend to give white people an easy way out. But sometimes unintended consequences occur, especially if we don’t do our homework. By Ali’s own admission, he didn’t check into the story ahead of time, and didn’t even know that Shirley had family. This emphasizes your point that people are people — regardless of race — and they are not all the same. Black people are not one big hoard, nor are white people, nor Ferengi. Only the Borg … whoops getting off track!

I recently interviewed an interracial couple, and the white husband said a lot of his white friends will say things like, “Debbie’s so white.” And Debbie’s response was, “what does that even mean? It probably means they don’t know any other black people, and they think we are all the same.”  

RD: Oh boy! I can relate to the whole “acting white” issue. (And it just so happens, I too am in an interracial marriage.) I’m actually writing a funny memoir about my evolution from mild mannered, friendly and “safe” black friend to “That angry black man” bitching about the f-ed up situation we got ourselves in that we ended up with a lying-hypocritical-sexist-egotistical-bigot of a president. I feel for Debbie.

BR: Yeah — out in the world, people don’t even realize that we all have some inherent prejudice. Even in the best of us ALL have bias (racial, ethnic, religious, gender, etc.,) and we need to be willing to look into our hearts and see how we can do better, and how we can understand “the other” and not just point to the other.

There were movies last year that took a serious look at racism, with far more truth and heart, and did it without the sugar-coating the horror of our racist history, and without the absurd white savior aspects of the story. If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther put forward Hollywood’s best foot and gave me — a middle-aged white man — just a little bit of what it must feel like to be a black man in our world.

RD: I find it funny you mention those movies. I got into a heated debate with my two best friends (an African-American couple, one of which is a Disney VP and Academy member) about “Black Panther’s” nomination for best picture. The whole thing started when I shared an op-ed article by a white dude who said he loved “Black Panther,” but was this really A) best picture worthy, and B) he felt there were “better” movies that addressed the issues of race than “Panther.” The movies he listed were the “usual suspects” from last year—i.e. If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman and Green Book. Well, not even Q from the Q-continuum has enough patience to wait for me to explain all the intricate, convoluted, and merry-go-round dynamics of this heated discussion with my dearest friends (for the record, these kinds of discussions are par for the course for us). Suffice to say, they both felt these other movies (except for Beale Street) paled in comparison to the overall brilliance that was “Black Panther.” Bottomline: they weren’t that all moved by those films (and frankly, they had a lot of shade to throw at BlacKkKlansman.)

In the end, I find it really fascinating how races respond to movies addressing their socio-economic realities in this country vis-a-vis people of other races. But this is all just mental masturbation, right. I mean, didn’t someone once say, “Movies are just meant for entertainment”.

BR: Oh yeah … that is where we started! I’d love to talk to you and your friends in more detail at some point … while I enjoyed Black Panther a lot, I would not have picked it as a Best Picture nomination. Blindspotting got to me the most. Maybe it hit me so hard because I am white, and your friends not so much because they are black. Either way more evidence that these films go way beyond just “entertainment.”

Which brings me back to Green Book’s fundamental problem … If the Oscars are about the best in film, then we should be able to call them out for failing to honor what is best.  IMHO, we have a responsibility to talk about race in film, or any other artistic medium for that matter. This is not simply a matter of “beauty in the eye of the beholder.” It is a matter of challenging ourselves to take the hard road, and to understand that looking into the past with rose-colored glasses will not help us build stronger collective futures.

RD: This is where my momma would say “Amen!”

BR: Ron thanks so much for jumping on this with me. It’s been a ton of fun to write, and I don’t know about anyone else out there on the interwebs, but I feel like I’ve learned a little something new. See you soon on the digital freeway.

RD: Thanks for having me. Now, when do we have the blog post where you explain that ridiculous statement you made about DS9 being the best post-classic Trek show? Benjamin Sisko might have been bald, and a captain, but he weren’t no Jean Luc Picard. (See, here’s a black man saying he likes the white bald Star Trek captain better. Oh, the horror!)

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