Sunday, December 23, 2018

Causing Trouble with Odienator: Shirley, You Can't Be Serious!

by Odienator

Sometimes the gods toss me a pitch straight down the middle, one so blatant and so clear that my near-sighted, half-blind ass can hit it out of the park without even trying. Today, I'd like to thank whichever god sent me Green Book, the Peter Farrelly Jungle Fever Cookie Buddy Movie* that has White critics dancing the Hucklebuck in the aisles while twisting logic into pretzels in order to justify its existence. This is a movie where a racist (but not TOO racist) Italian man drives a regal Black musical genius across the South in 1962, realizing along the way that perhaps he should reserve the word mulignana for eggplants only. Yes, folks, in 2018, Hollywood has deemed that we need yet another "one of the Good Negroes" movies to soothe the savage breasts of insecure racists everywhere. In the year of BlackKklansman, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, If Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther, did we really need a race-based throwback so musty and old that even Stanley Kramer would have found it too dated?

Of course we did! This is how Hollywood has always worked. As soon as Black folks started running around crossing their arms and saying "Wakanda Forever," basking in films made for us and by us, Hollywood was like "hey, they're gettin' too big for their britches again! Gotta show 'em their place." It happened in 1967 after Sidney Poitier, then the top box office draw, slapped the everlasting gobstopper shit out of a rich, racist White man in Norman Jewison's Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night. That had never been done before, and Black audiences responded accordingly with whoops of joy. Finally, Sidney had shaken off the shackles of years of playing characters who "knew their place" and come out literally swinging! Plus, he was smarter than everybody else in that movie and he knew it. Hollywood responded by completely neutering Sidney in his next film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? His brilliant doctor character was as practically perfect as Mary Poppins yet still wasn't good enough to marry some well-below-his-league hippie White chick. I can only imagine how quickly Black audiences felt deflated by this.

I guess the Hollywood powers-that-be thought two movies with "Black" in their titles were inspiring untenable levels of African-American pride and confidence in 2018. As the Bible says, "pride goeth before destruction and an uppity Negro before the fall." So we needed to be reminded of how Hollywood likes its people of color. Enter Green Book, a movie where the Black character has to be taught how to be the White audience's interpretation of "Black." Dr. Don Shirley (an excellent Mahershala Ali) may play the piano with amazing skill, have multiple degrees, speak eight languages fluently and live above Carnegie Hall, but he apparently knows nothing about what this film thinks is Black culture, nor does he know many of the fundamentals for survival as a person of color in 1962. "I know more about your people than you do," says his driver, Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, sporting a questionable Brawnks, Noo Yawk accent as thick as this film's bullshit). 

That line is the biggest pander for the type of audience who'd sop Green Book off the screen with a biscuit of cluelessness. But let's start at the beginning and work our way up to that excruciating sequence where Tony Lip gets to play Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Nygmalion. I called this film a "Jungle Fever Cookie Buddy Movie," which is my term for a film like 48 Hrs. where a Black guy and a White guy become friends and/or allies while the film perpetrates a false sense of equality between them. In the majority of these films, the Black character is always beneath the White character despite what the plot dictates, and everything is filtered through the White character's eyes. Ask yourself, how much do you actually know about the personal lives of Hoke from Driving Miss Daisy? Or Viola Davis in The Help? Or, Lord help me, Bagger Vance? You know practically nothing, right? Let's explore this phenomenon.

And what exactly is a "Jungle Fever Cookie" you ask?

 The coloring is equal on the cookie, but not in the movies! 

Green Book is co-written by Tony Lip's son Nick, and he's more intrested in glorifying his Daddy than giving Don Shirley any realistic humanity. (That's a good son for you!) Dr. Shirley doesn't even show up until almost half an hour into the film. Until then, we're following Tony Lip through his paces as a bouncer for the Copacabana. Tony's got a bit of a racket going on there, stealing hats for money and earning favors with the local mob guys who frequent Barry Manilow's favorite hangout spot. Currying favor with the local Mafiosi is as far as Tony Lip's willing to go--he has no interest in joining. He'd rather enter eating contests, but those are few and far between. So when the Copa has to close for renovations, Tony's suddenly at a temporary loss for work, one that could easily be supplemented by the far heavier and more dangerous work he's not willing to do for the Don. Don't worry, folks, another Don is willing to hire him.

The Vallelongas live in the northernmost borough of New York City. Tony Lip wakes up one morning to find half his in-laws and a quarter of the neighborhood in his house. His wife, Dolores (the lovely, talented Linda Cardellini) reminds him that this was the morning the sink was being repaired. The reason the goombah squad is currently present is simple: The plumbers are a couple of Black guys trying to earn a living. Dolores offers the gentlemen water in glasses, and once the men have finished, Tony Lip tosses the glasses in the trash.

Let's stop right here. This entire scene is the first sign Green Book is going to be dishonest, half-assed, Caucasian-congratulatin' bullshit. Tony Lip and his buddies converse in Italian, which is helpfully translated into English on the screen right up until the moment they get to the word mulignana. The subtitles use the literal translation of the word, which is eggplant, rather than its slang translation. You don't have to be from my beloved home state of New Jersey to know that, in a certain context, mulignana also means nigger.

This is why I would never order eggplant parmigiana at an Italian joint.

Viggo Mortensen doesn't get to say the N-word in the film, but he felt quite comfortable saying it at a post-screening Q&A in Los Angeles. "Nobody says nigger anymore," said Mortensen. When the Twitterati went up in arms, Mortensen and his defenders demanded everyone look at the context in which Mortensen used the word. Believe it or not, I agree! Context is everything here, and while I'm rather stunned Mortensen felt ballsy enough to drop the word while surrounded by two Black men, he was attempting to make a point, no matter how misguided his point actually was. Viggo's comment was wrong as fuck because people still say nigger! Read my hate mail sometimes! Or the comments under my pieces.

But context is everything, right? Too bad the subtitlers didn't follow this rule. And you know why? Becuase they didn't want to make Tony Lip and his crew seem "too racist." They needed to be Avenue Q-level racist, not Hilly-Holbrook-in-The-Help-level racist. Dolores digs the plumbers' glasses out of the trash and shakes her head the way Edith Bunker probably did, but I just have one question: Who the fuck called all those people over when the Black plumbers showed up in the first place? I have a good guess!

Anyway, these are trivial matters compared to what comes next. Tony Lip gets a bead on a job. Some doctor is looking for a driver to take him through what Timbaland referred to as the "dirty South." Oddly enough, this doctor lives atop Carnegie Hall. And he's BLICK, to use the Lethal Weapon II pronunciation.

"I was Black Moses YEARS before Ike."

Our first look at Dr. Shirley is amazing. Here's this beautiful, dark-skinned Black man with a voice so mellifluous it would shame the gods, and he's decked out in regal garb that looks as if Wakanda and Zamunda had a baby. If the makers of Green Book put out the Don Shirley Line, I'd max out my credit cards buying his threads, his throne and his shoes. I'd be dressed up at critic's screenings, throwing shade and saying "bitch, don't sit next to me! You COMMONER!!"

Speaking of shoes, Tony Lip is on board with doing the drive until he hears that he has to shine Dr. Shirley's shoes. "Youse supposed ta be shinin' MY shoes!" I said, reading Tony Lip's mind. The guy says he has no problems working for a Black man, but that shoe thing's a bridge too far! Secretly, I hoped Shirley would offer him a drink and then toss the glass into the trash after Tony Lip finished. "You people have cooties!" the good doctor would have said. But no, Dr. Shirley's gotta remain noble nad magical.

Tony Lip takes the job. Otherwise we'd have no movie. At this point, nearly an hour in, we finally see the item that gives Green Book its title. Dr. Shirley's manager hands it to Tony Lip and explains its purpose. What we learn about them in this movie is in stark contrast to what I learned about them. (Full disclosure: I actually own a few that were bequeathed to me.) Since Green Book has a White martyr complex, it says nothing about how the book explained sundown towns or how useful and important it was for Black travelers. Instead, we learn that the Green Book listings were all rundown and dangerous places where Black people have never seen anyone who looks like Don Shirley. The movie hasn't done enough damage, so now it has to piss on the thing that gives it its title.

Have a good look at it, because Farrelly and Co. aren't gonna give you one.

Dr. Shirley is smart enough to know that having muscle like Tony Lip is a good idea in the deep South. And there's a very believable scene where his bodyguard intervenes to make sure his contractual demands of a Steinway piano are met. But most of Green Book is Tony Lip trying to "loosen up" and "Blackify" Dr. Shirley. Nowhere is this more cringe-inducing and blatant than in the movie's centerpiece, an interminable scene that involves Kentucky Fried Chicken. You know the filmmakers thought this scene was important, because the trailer for Green Book highlights it, as does every single commercial. I'm absolutely stunned that KFC didn't do a movie tie-in, complete with an endorsement from their "Crispy Colonel" incarnation of Colonel Sanders. Because fried chicken is on screen so long it deserves consideration in the Supporting Actor category at this year's Academy Awards. It shows up again later at a ritzy dinner, sticking out like a sore thumb on all that that good china!

This is George Hamilton as "The Crispy Colonel"--I did not make that shit up.

The fried chicken-eating scene occurs while the duo is driving through Kentucky. Tony Lip is excited that he can buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky! I lived in Florence, Kentucky for four months, and I'll be honest, I went to KFC just to say I bought it in Kentucky. So I get Tony Lip's enthusiasm about this. However, the scene quickly goes awry when Tony Lip tries to get Dr. Shirley to partake in the eleven herbs and spices-infused subject of a hundred thousand racist Black jokes.

Dr. Shirley declines, and for a second, I thought the movie would make a sly dig at the idea that some Black folks would NEVER eat fried chicken in "polite company." I was instead reminded that this is a film written by three White guys who know as much about Black people as I do about open-heart surgery. Dr. Shirley responds with a line that I guarantee you the writers thought was a means of bypassing stereotype:

"I have never eaten fried chicken in my life!" protests Shirley.

"Shirley, you can't be serious!" I thought. "Nigga, you from FLORIDA!"

Now I hear you muthafuckas reading this. "Odie, you a racist!! All that 'we are not a monolith' talk, and here you are painting this poor man with stereotype." Well, y'all can kiss my natural Black ass two times! Unlike the makers of Green Book, I actually looked into what Don Shirley's relatives had to say about him. His brother, Maurice said Shirley "had definitely eaten fried chicken before" he went on this road trip. So the only reason this scene exists is to show Tony Lip teaching his boss to be "more Black." Hell, this is the scene where he says "I know more about your people than you do."

Of course, Dr. Shirley discovers he likes KFC. I bet he'd like Popeye's, Bojangles or Church's even better, but Green Book doesn't have time for taste tests. Tony Lip is too busy teaching this classically trained pianist about other Black musicians like Little Richard. He asks if Shirley can play in a similar vein, which is obviously foreshadowing the moment when Shirley goes full boogie-woogie on an upright piano in a juke joint later in the film. "Now, you're truly Black!" the movie seems to be saying as the juke joint audience applauds the performance. I suppose Farrelly would have had the patrons looking at the camera all confused, saying "what de FUCK is dat shit?!" had Shirley played them some Chopin or Scott Joplin.

Green Book is an incredibly offensive film, but its decision to isolate Shirley from Black people and Black culture is its most egregious sin. The assumptions it makes are uninformed and harmful. It posits that Black people would not appreciate an educated man like Dr. Shirley because they share more in common with a racist Italian with a sixth-grade education who knows how to play cee-lo. It never gives thought to the notion that Dr. Shirley might be someone his people could be proud of, or could aspire to be. Dr. Shirley is presented as noble for playing for rich White assholes, but also problematic because he's too "White-acting" to fit in within his own community.

Dr. Shirley is never allowed to tell us what he really thinks about his life. The question of why he's even interested in playing in the segregated South isn't answered by him. Instead, it's answered by one of his fellow musicians, who says a bullshit line that's so cliched that I'm not even going to print it. Instead, Shirley gets a rain-soaked monologue where he asks Tony Lip "where do I belong?" Ali plays the hell out of that monologue, but I couldn't believe for one second that his character would deliver it.

In order to elevate Tony Lip's White Saviorism even further, Green Book also isolates Don Shirley from his own family. He tells Tony Lip that he has no idea where his brother is and that they're no longer in contact. (This is a lie.) One would be forgiven if one assumed this had to do with Shirley's homosexuality, but it does not. There's a scene here where Tony Lip has to save his boss after Shirley gets caught having sex with a gay White man in a deep South YMCA. All I could ask myself was "is this man really this stupid? Does he not know of the dangers of being horny, Black and outside at night in the deep South?" Tony Lip's nonchalant reaction to learning Dr. Shirley is gay is actually more believable than the situation in which he discovers it; he basically says he's seen this stuff before at the Copa and that, if it got out, "this could ruin your career."

Green Book bills itself as the story of "an unlikely friendship." According to the film, however, this friendship is built completely on Dr. Shirley's need to be constantly saved and educated. Tony Lip not only gets a lost lamb, he also gets his own personal Cyrano de BergerBlac to help him woo his wife. But what does Dr. Shirley get out of this "friendship"? A Guardian angel who shows him how to keep it a hunnert with Black folks?

They even had a "Tell us about your one Black friend, White people!" contest!

When Shirley shows up at the Vallelonga residence for Christmas dinner at the end of Green Book, there's the expected initial shock from everyone. But then the guys who were formerly racist against the plumbers welcome him in practically with open arms. They're gonna have to throw away an entire place setting after he leaves, including silverware! I thought. That's gonna be expensive. And Mrs. V. even thanks him for helping her husband write better love letters, which I can believe she would do. Her comment is the last line of the film, in fact, a sweet sentiment designed to send the audience out beaming over the end of the racisms!

Green Book won the Audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and is being positioned as the salve we need in this era of neo-Nazis and the president who loves them. You'd be forgiven if you got this impression from the reviews, the award nominations and the critics awards. (As of this writing, it won the National Board of Review's Best Picture and Best Actor awards.) Earlier, I said White critics were dancing the Hucklebuck over this movie, and there are plenty of reviews that support my point. But to be transparent and truthful, not everyone was fooled:

A.O. Scott wrote: "As I said, there’s not much here you haven’t seen before, and very little that can’t be described as crude, obvious and borderline offensive, even as it tries to be uplifting and affirmative."

The always elegant Richard Brody wrote: "“Green Book” offers a vision of racists changing their views, but in a way that doesn’t in any way threaten racist prejudices" and ends his review with the word "bullshit."

And my good friend Sean Burns wrote that Green Book "plays like a bizarre Trumpist’s anti-Obama empowerment fantasy, in which a proudly ignorant white prole is constantly humiliating an erudite, sophisticated black man and showing him how the world really works."

Speaking of conservative fantasies, if those folks really wanted to own those Northerner Libs and call them on their racial hypocrisy, all they'd have to do is look at some quotes from the director himself and critics like David Edelstein. Farrelly gave a very telling interview to Vulture where he kept pulling executive producer Octavia Spencer's name out whenever the question leaned toward "why the fuck are you making this dated embarassment?" But this is my favorite part of the interview:

You’re talking about the scene where Viggo can’t believe that Mahershala’s character has never eaten fried chicken and basically browbeats him into trying some for the first time. It is great. But when it started, I’ll admit I got queasy, thinking the scene might go in a racist direction.

Yeah, well, the strength of it is that when [Viggo] says, “Hey, if you told me Guineas like meatballs and spaghetti, I wouldn’t get insulted.” He kind of is opening it up and saying, “This is bullshit. Don’t bring up this race shit. I know what you like.” And there’s so much humor in there with it, you know? “You have a narrow assessment of me, Tony,” Don says. And Tony Lip goes, “Yeah, I’m good, right?” It’s that kind of stuff. When she was in the editing room with me, Octavia was howling, and it just gave me such encouragement. 

I imagined Spencer in the editing room rocking back and forth while chanting "Minny don't burn chicken" like a mantra. And I don't recall any Prince Spaghetti Day commercials causing Italians to be discriminated against. So this is major-league false equivalency. Plus, Farrelly's comment proves my exact point about how his entire movie is some White guy doling out Blackness advice to an African-American: "Don't bring up this race shit, I know what you like." Really, now?

Also at Vulture, film critic David Edelstein got in as much hot water as Prince Spaghetti when he ended his glowing review like this:

"And I have to confess that in the current, insanely divisive political climate, I enjoyed Green Book’s spoon-feeding mightily. The movie taps into a kind of nostalgia for when everything — even racism — seemed simpler, and ready to be legislated out of existence."

It took him 2 days, but Edelstein eventually tried to clean that shit up, saying: "I find to my horror that my closing line reads as if I have nostalgia for a time when racism was even more pervasive and deadly than it is today. I don’t." Rather than question the sincerity of his apology, I'd like to quote an earlier line from his review as the last point in this thesis:

"After abrasive hits like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’s The Butler (as well as flops like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit), the thinking is that audiences will be in the mood for a warmhearted, mismatched-buddy, racial-bonding drama-comedy that spoon-feeds you everything and goes down real easy."

THE BUTLER IS ABRASIVE?! I reviewed it and there's a Black Man Talk on it right here at this very site. It's far from a "let's scare de White People" movie. But what the three films Edelstein singled out have in common is that they all show Black people interacting outside of the gaze of White people. No matter what one thinks of the quality of these films, they show things other than what the White characters see or know about these people. In The Butler, it's even a comic counterpoint--we see how the servants (led by my doppelganger Cuba Gooding Jr.) interact amongst themselves as opposed to how they act in "polite company."

Apparently, that's abrasive to the good White viewers who don't consider themselves racist. This thinking is why shit like Green Book still gets made, and why any complaints from critics of color are being met with protests that we're "ruining its Oscar chances!" (I still say it'll win Best Picture if its box office picks up.) Well, if "abrasive" racism onscreen makes you uncomforable, try dealing with it in real life every fucking day of your existence. Sharing a bucket of KFC isn't gonna fix that.

"Write this down. Why was I the only person who had to apologize to Dr. Shirley's family?"