OPINION: Why controversies over “Green Book” matter

Sony Ton-Aime (NEW)

Sony Ton-Aime

Last Sunday, “Green Book” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This provoked strong reactions from both movie critics and moviegoers like myself. Since I know almost nothing about filmmaking, I will refrain from arguing on the merits of the movie’s cinematography. Instead, I will talk about the controversies that started long before the night of the Oscars; the ones that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said did not matter.

These controversies matter. I understand how Mr. Abdul-Jabbar might have come to a different conclusion though. He is the product of his environment, that is the individualistic American culture. In this culture, a historical event can be explained through the actions of one or two people. For a Haitian like me, however, historical events should be seen through the collective lens.

In his opinion piece, Abdul-Jabbar focused on the main characters, Dr. Donald Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, just like the filmmakers did. He judged the movie by using the same lenses as the makers. He fell for what any good movie or book ought to do; provoke empathy for the characters. Abdul-Jabbar’s opinion would be fair if he had critiqued the movie on its cinematographic merits alone, but he ventured into the history of the movie’s facts which rendered his conclusion flawed.

The movie is named after the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was written by Victor Hugo Green to help African Americans navigate through Jim Crow era America, mainly in the South. The book listed the places where African Americans were welcome to eat, sleep or fuel their cars while traveling in the mid-twentieth century. It saved them humiliation and, at times, saved their lives.

If one googles green book right now, one will only find articles pertaining to the movie. A movie about a white man driving a rich black man made by white men becomes the point of reference to an important historical period in African American history.

This movie is a continuation of the erasure of the lives of black people in America. It corrupts further a history that has been buried or ignored. It helps with the erasure of the ingenuity it took from the African Americans to survive the constant terrorism of their white compatriots. Instead of showing the real history and entrepreneurship of black people, it serves us with a white savior fighting for a black man’s life. Imagine a movie where William “Billy” Lee helping George Washington to devise a tactical battle plan named the American Revolutionary War.

It erases the work of great women like Alberta Ellis and the civil right activists, but most importantly, the author of the Negro Motorist Green Book, Victor Hugo Green.

Reducing the history of the book to two individuals does not simply demonstrate the limits of individualism but how it too often can erase the work of the collective.

Context matters. Perspective matters. A movie about the relationship between these two men could have been made with no controversy in a different historical context. If such movie were made in Haiti, there would be no controversy. If someone were to produce a movie in Haiti and call it The Haitian Independence War while focusing only on the Sonthonax proclamation, we Haitians, would simply laugh and place it in the parody category where it would belong. Unlike Americans, Haitians are taught – at a young age – their history in school.

So yes, these controversies matter, Abdul-Jabbar. They matter because a movie is never just a movie – even more so when it corrupts history. They matter because most Americans do not know what the Negro Motorist Green Book was and now – through the movie – they will remember it as the thing about the black doctor who was driven and protected by the white illiterate man. They matter because the history of the black people is constantly being erased in the education system. They matter because we are living in the United States of America.

Sony Ton-Aime is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].