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Green Book as a ‘Savior’ Story

By Elisabeth Miller

 My granddaughter is one of a very small minority of Hispanic-American students in an overwhelmingly predominant Italian-American student body at her high school.  She has been in the town’s schools since seventh grade and is now in tenth, and she still does not feel accepted by the kids who grew up in the town whom she describes as “white”.  She and her group of friends, all of whom are in the minority in one way or another, by race or ethnicity or by being the new kids in school, sit at their own table at lunch, and no one from the majority group talks to them, she reports. She says that she will talk to anyone, but all she gets back are scornful looks.  She has been told to go back where she came from by kids whose grandparents came from someplace else.  She has also reported incidents which she feels were unfair acts of discrimination against the minority students by the teachers and administration of the school, who are also mostly Italian-American.  Her basic conclusion from all of this is that the “white” students and staff don’t much like the minorities, that they are racist.

From his son’s own description in interviews, and as seen in his depiction of his father inthe movie “Green Book”, the Italian-American main character was a racist when he began a journey with a black musician who hired him to drive on a tour through the South in 1962.  The Vallelonga family was living a pretty stereotypical Italian-American life in the early sixties, with the father Tony working as a bouncer at the mob-owned Copacabana night club. 

Poorly educated, Tony was a man who seems to have missed out on the opportunities and rewards promised by the “American Dream” which waves of immigrants have come to the US to pursue. The family was living on the edge of survival day to day, to the point that, when out of work during renovations at the Copa, Tony entered a hot dog eating contest to win $50 to pay the bills, a true story according to his son Nick.

In contrast, the musician, Dr. Don Shirley, had managed through a combination of enormous talent and the luck of having it recognized and developed from a young age, to largely overcome the barriers of stereotypes, discrimination and racism, to become a unique personality with the ability to express that in such a way that he accumulated both fame and wealth.  Dr. Shirley was a sophisticated man with a superior education, a world traveler, and well connected to people in power, to the point that a call placed from a Southern jail cell to the Attorney General Robert Kennedy got through and was effective in having him, and Tony, released.  

Following an attack on Nat King Cole when on tour through the segregated Jim Crow era South, Dr. Shirley decided that he would do a tour of his own, his personal act of protest, to which his record company agreed with the proviso that he hire a white driver to also act as his bodyguard.

While Dr. Shirley clearly understood the risks and dangers of the trip, Tony at first did not.  Although the history and legacy of slavery saturate American culture, and are experienced daily in the lives of African-Americans, for the man from Little Italy, seeing and sharing that experience with his companion was a true revelation, beyond what he had learned about or known growing up in New York.

“Green Book” has been described and criticized as just another in a long list of “white savior” genre movies, where a white person intervenes on behalf of a black person to save that person from some negative outcome, making the white audience glow with pride, leaving a nice, warm Hollywood-ending feeling.  In fact, “Green Book” is exactly the opposite, making it quite clear that the main character is Tony, the father of the screenwriter Nick, and that it is he who needed saving, not Dr. Shirley.

Dr. Shirley needed protecting from many situations which were beyond Tony’s ability to predict at the beginning of the trip, just as they may be to many in the audience who are unfamiliar with the history of the Jim Crow era.  Dr. Shirley faced some very real threats, far beyond the inconveniences and lack of civility addressed by the Green Book itself, as a black man who was only identified by the color of his skin as he navigated his way through the segregated South.  

Tony was able to transfer his skills from growing up on the streets of New York to do his job on behalf of his black employer.  Clearly the experiences encountered during the trip impacted Dr. Shirley, making the racial hatred and violence of Jim Crow very personal, but Dr. Shirley was born in Florida and grew up in that world. The impact on Tony, on the other hand, was transformative.      

The warm feeling at the end of “Green Book” is not so much from how Tony saved Dr. Shirley from the dangers of racism, but rather from what Tony’s son tells the audience about how Dr. Shirley “saved” his father, how he educated him, and the positive impact of that on the whole family.  For all of their differences, Tony and Dr. Shirley, over the course of their shared journey, became friends, and the friendship was taken home to Tony’s extended family and lasted until the end of their lives.

The transformation which Tony undergoes as shown in the movie is profound, and it is the result of education, informal and experiential.  Education was exactly what had been lacking in Tony’s life, and it is what had already transformed Dr. Shirley into the man that he had become.  At the same time, education had left Dr. Shirley somewhat lonely, apart, and maybe even isolated from the mainstream black society and culture of the time.  If Tony in any way was a “white savior” for Dr. Shirley, it resulted from the reciprocal gift of sharing friendship and family, from the two men finding some deeper human connection beyond race or ethnicity.

The injustices which are revealed in “Green Book” go beyond the racial oppression and socio-economic conditions of black people in 1962.  We also see the oppression and socio-economic conditions of the Italian-American community, an immigrant group which, at that time, in the boom years after WWII, was still very marginalized and disparaged by many, very much in the same way that Mexican and Central American immigrants and their descendants, as well as other immigrant groups, are in Trump’s America today.  Just as Hispanics are now commonly described as “people of color”, and often do not self-identify as white, Italian-Americans faced that same otherness then and still do as an ethnic minority. They are not a group which can ever be said to enjoy “white privilege”, especially not when “white” goes along with Anglo-Saxon and Protestant as part of WASP, a categorization which clearly excludes Italian-Americans on the latter two descriptors.  Maybe some of the racism which Italian-Americans are often accused of harboring flows from a negative view of competing marginalized groups about whom they know very little, but with whom there is a sense of friction rather than a sense of unity, even when they are all under the same thumb of the “white” man.

The hope, the salvation, comes through education, first and foremost, both on the personal level and the societal.  After the trip with Dr. Shirley, Tony returned to work not as a bouncer, but as a maitre’d at the Copacabana, applying some of the lessons he learned from Dr. Shirley about how to better present himself to the public.  Some years later, that position finally opened up the opportunity for Tony to do what he had told his sons he had often dreamed of, becoming an actor, when he met Francis Ford Coppola.  Most of Tony’s roles in movies and TV were playing stereotypical Italian-American mafia characters, including his role on “The Sopranos”.  

Tony’s son wrote a very different story, showing us the real life transformation of his father from living that stereotype to a man who found an unexpected and unusual way out of that life.  The change in Tony brought his sons into a world rich with the education and opportunities that he had been denied growing up.  

Almost 60 years after the trip that Tony took with Dr. Shirley, many people still live in insular communities of all types, people who remain segregated, in their own enclaves, ghettos, barrios, neighborhoods, and towns, trapped by any number of socio-economic conditions.  They lack the education that provides a wider view of the world and its inhabitants.  They remain unaware of their own history and of our shared history and the shared struggle for justice.  They do not have access to the opportunities that they should as they remain marginalized, fearing the continuing discrimination and disparagement they face outside of their own communities.  

We live in one of those towns, second only to Fort Lee, New Jersey, for the percentage of Italian-Americans in the population, with a majority of voters registered as Democrats and a majority who voted for Trump, our Godfather in Chief even if he is not of Italian descent.  Our town has a storied past of mafia control and recent incidents of open racism, where we are in the minority, where we are the other. 

My granddaughter says that I do not feel her pain because I am “white”, to which I reply that no, I am Jewish, and I was in the same kind of position that she is in now when I lived in an Italian-American dominated neighborhood for junior high school in the mid-1960s and had to ride the bus everyday with 12 year olds who taunted and bullied me.  I often came home crying, and she does not.  With bullying now openly discussed and dealt with as an issue, and strictly prohibited at school, my granddaughter says it does not happen that way to her, but the exclusion and the feeling of being seen as different persist.  What she cries for is to return to the city, to go to school in her old community, to be part of a majority Hispanic-American student body where she can openly be herself and have others around her accept that and understand what it means, bicultural, bilingual Guats who know what it is to grow up with parents who fled a country which her generation barely knows.  I tell her that her kids will be “white” just like the Italian-Americans and I are to her, but she doesn’t believe that could happen.

Nick Vallelonga credits Dr. Don Shirley with opening up his father’s eyes and his heart, and for giving him a new way to express that to his family.  Hate and its expressions are taught, and so is love, and so is the expression of love.  It is never too late to learn, for a man, for a community, or for a country, and it is never too late to unlearn.  “Green Book” the movie can be seen as Nick’s thank you to Dr. Shirley, just as his mother says thank you in his ear when she finally meets him and greets him with a hug, for being their “savior”. 

The single most important lesson to take away after viewing “Green Book” is that we, as a nation, must educate our young people in a diverse America to see others, however they may be classified as groups, not as a threat, not as enemies, but as potential friends who can enrich, even transform, our lives, if we are brave and confident enough to take the chance to speak to them, share with them, get to know them, and learn from them.  Then we will find that the us includes them too. 


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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