In 2019, the film “Green Book” directed by American director Peter Farrelly won the Oscar for Best Picture in one fell swoop. With a journey south that coexisted with tears and warmth, it once again revisited the contradiction between black identity and white mainstream culture. onto the screen. The film adopts a dual-male protagonist approach, colliding with the careless white Tony and the smooth-talking black Dr. Shirley. It uses two perspectives, “black” and “white”, with Dr. Shirley as the epitome. , showed the audience the hesitation and confusion of the American black community in the 1960s when facing the two cultures of “black” and “white”.
”Green Book” is not a new work, but the core expressed in it is still timeless. The identity issue of the African-American community has far-reaching historical causes and a strong cultural background, and “Green Book” only shows the audience the tip of the iceberg of the lives of African-Americans affected by this history and culture. On the one hand, the various behavioral differences and identity contrasts between the white Tony and the black Shelly in the film are visible to the audience. They are either sadness or tenderness, and they are the emotions between the black and white people that the audience can directly feel. The most sincere emotional collision. But the emotional and ideological motivations behind every action and expression of Tony and Shelly are the core that really need to be understood with heart, and this is precisely what the audience cannot easily detect. On the other hand, as social news about racial discrimination has continued unabated in recent years, we can see that many black people today still face the identity dilemma that Dr. Shelly encountered.
The roots of history: a journey south that was ridiculed
In the movie “Green Book”, pianist Dr. Shirley introduced his tour route to Tony when he first met: “The tour starts in the Midwest, then turns left and passes through Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and the Delta region.” . The era that Shelly and Tony lived in was around 1960, when the black civil rights movement was rising. Many far-sighted black people traveled to various states in order for their compatriots to obtain the same rights as white people. As a black pianist, Dr. Shirley seemed to have been affected by the black civil rights movement. He could have stayed in the more liberal and democratic north to conduct a piano tour, but instead chose to embark on a southern tour. This is not an easy decision to make. Even a white man like Tony, who has been hanging out in bars for a long time, can imagine what kind of difficulties Shelly will encounter in the south, so he bluntly told Shelly “the more we go, the more difficult it will be.” Something will happen to South Vietnam.”
Tony’s persuasion is grounded in history. 100 years before the story of the film took place, during the American Civil War, the North, which advocated the establishment of free western states, and the South, which advocated the implementation of slavery nationwide, were at loggerheads in politics, economy, culture and other aspects. When the enlightened capitalists in the North built flaming factories one after another after the Industrial Revolution, the stubborn slave owners in the South were still guarding the endless plantations; when the black citizens in the North were in taverns, While they were playing jazz, the black slaves in the South were still working hard in the fields for their masters day and night. In the North, Dr. Shirley was respected by everyone as a “real artist” both on and off the stage, elegant and knowledgeable; but in the South, when he stepped off the stage, he was banned from entering white areas and living in white areas. hotels, restaurants that eat white people, and even lowly “niggers” who use white people’s restrooms. This strong difference is an irresolvable contradiction and gap on racial issues left to the north and south of the United States by history.
However, the liberal ideas of the North do not mean that every white person has absolute tolerance and equality towards black people. For example, Tony in the film has a complex identity like Shelly: first he is an out-and-out racist, secondly he is an Italian-American, and finally he is a white man at the bottom of society. Each of Tony’s identities can find conflict with Shelly, so the beginning of the film shows the irreconcilable contradiction between the two: when Tony saw his wife serving two black workers who came to repair the house with their own cups, He did not hesitate to throw the cup used by the black man into the trash can behind his wife’s back; and when he applied for the job of Shelly’s driver, he was not used to Shelly’s condescending attitude and secretly described it as a “jungle” “Chief”; when he learned that after being hired, he would not only be a driver, but also iron clothes and shine shoes for Shelly, he immediately refused this high-paying job, even though he really needed money to support his family. Therefore, in the context of that time, even if the status was noble like Shelly, black people would not fully enjoy the same respect as white people just because they lived in the North of the United States. The North would only be slightly freer and more enlightened against the backdrop of the South. That’s all. The status and situation of black people can only be described as poor and worse.
Although Tony is a racist, this does not affect his love for his wife and sense of responsibility for his family as a responsible man, so despite his reluctance, he accepted the “condescension” of serving Shelly. errand. Before the trip south, Tony got a booklet called “Easy Vacation: Green Book for Black Drivers” (hereinafter referred to as the “Green Book”), which recorded in detail how black people can “safely” during the journey. Choose your own place to live. This booklet played an important role in Tony and Dr. Shirley’s journey south. The hotel Shirley stayed in and the bar he entered were all selected based on this “Green Book”. Historically, the “Green Book” is a real handbook, a travel guide produced specifically for black people in the 1960s. At that time, racial discrimination was very serious in southern cities in the United States. This “Green Book” marked the hotels, restaurants and other places that black people were allowed to enter to ensure the personal safety of black people.
The Green Book is by no means an inconsequential and dispensable pamphlet. It implicitly corresponds to the Black Codes, a code of law promulgated by the southern states in the United States after the Civil War. The Black Code explicitly deprived black people of their political rights, land ownership, freedom of speech, personal freedom, etc., raising apartheid and racial discrimination to a legal level. In an era when black skin may cost your life at any time, it is necessary to intentionally maintain a safe distance from white people and their areas, so black people need such a manual to protect themselves. The “Green Book” shows at every turn the concessions made by black people on various rights, while the “Black Code” involuntarily reduced black people to the status of slaves and exploited them in the most thorough way. This contrast has always reminded the audience from the moment Tony took over the “Green Book” that Dr. Shirley’s journey south is destined to be a journey of being looked down upon.
Unattainable understanding: Am I black or white?
Shirley’s image contains a variety of contradictions, such as contradictions in skin color, class, sexual orientation, and cultural identity. Among them, the contradiction in cultural identity is the most obvious and is the core of the entire film. It is the contradiction between Shirley’s black identity and whiteness. The result that mainstream culture and power cannot reconcile. Stuart Hall, a contemporary British cultural researcher, divided “identity” into three categories: enlightenment subject, social subject, and postmodern subject. As typical representatives of “forced immigrants”, African Americans have been marginalized as their own culture has lost their significance as enlightenment subjects the moment they left their homeland in Africa. They were carried to America, a culture completely different from their own, and in The American society of white supremacy has created a social subject identity that deviates from its own enlightenment subject. The postmodern subject is to abandon the definition of inherent identity, which is a subject concept that most black people are unable to form. African Americans are a special group. They feel more the suffering from the irreconcilability between enlightenment subjects and social subjects. Therefore, they have become spiritual wanderers and cannot accurately define their cultural identity.
This kind of suffering is particularly obvious in Shirley, and it alludes to another important aspect of identity, which is the issue of compatibility between individual identity and national identity. Shirley appeared glamorous on the surface. She made her stage debut at the age of 3, held her first concert at the age of 18, and was invited to perform at the White House twice. Not only that, Shelly also received a good education, and also has a doctorate in psychology, vocal music and etiquette arts. This is where Dr. Shirley connects with his white identity. He has gained both fame and fortune, and is what others call a great “American artist.” However, the conflict between this personality consciousness formed under the influence of white culture and Shelly’s own black culture caused him to fall into an anxiety of identity. Just like Dr. Shirley once shouted in the rain: “If I’m not black enough, or white enough, or man enough, then please tell me, Tony, who am I?” In the film, the special feature of Shirley’s image
is It lies in how he defines himself as black or white, which is confusing and entangled for Shelly himself, the white people around him, and even his own black compatriots. Living in American society in the 1960s, Shelly also tried to escape his black identity: As a musician, he never cared about the pop music released by his compatriots; he would subconsciously refuse and fight Tony when he handed him fried chicken. Theory: “Not all black people like fried chicken.” Although Shirley has incorporated too many habits of the white upper class, he still cannot hide his black skin, which symbolizes his “humble” origin. So even though Shelly has become famous, when he looks at the black compatriots working in the fields, he still has mixed feelings in his heart. As a well-spoken upper class person, Shelly felt at this moment that all the feelings of disapproval caused by skin color were beyond the scope of words. Fame and fortune, in front of the dark skin, are nothing but vain clouds, but they have all turned into an insurmountable gap between Dr. Shirley and his compatriots, cruelly standing between them. Under the scorching sun, the compatriots working in the fields silently stared at the black elite in front of them who could hire white drivers. Shelley, in a straight suit, also stared closely at the compatriots holding farm tools in the fields – they all knew that they were Americans, but they don’t know who they really are.
Dr. Shirley is obviously at a loss when it comes to defining his own identity. His natural dark skin will not change easily because of his upper-class status. Many times, Shelly deliberately distanced herself from both whites and blacks. He would drink alone on the balcony and watch helplessly the white people in his travels chatting downstairs; he would also decline invitations from his compatriots to play games together after checking into a black hotel. Shelley was kicked back and forth between whites and black compatriots like a ball. He was not favored by both sides and was not accepted by both sides. The whites despised his origin, while the black compatriots ridiculed him for his pretentious white behavior. All these make Dr. Shirley unable to accurately define his identity, and can only struggle between black and white like an alien who is neither black nor white.
Being neither completely black nor completely white is indeed the reason why Shelly cannot get self-identity. However, even in this dilemma, he still shows an identity of self in some aspects, such as personality. dignity. For Shelly, dignity has nothing to do with black and white, but a belief and certificate that supports him to walk between the two worlds. It always tells Shelly that at least he still lives like a human being, whether he is black or white. When Tony punched a police officer because of his words, Shelly was taken into police custody with Tony. Shelly would bluntly tell Tony that “violence never solves problems” and “keep your dignity, dignity will always give you the upper hand.” After Shirley had to rely on the relationship with the then U.S. Attorney General to get away from Tony, unlike Tony who believed that “it was an honor to be rescued by a big shot”, Shirley showed strong shame because he was very afraid of the minister. Casting negative doubts on his character is a violation of Shelly’s dignity. Dignity is the most important thing that Shelly can maintain, and it is also the last line of defense for his personality, because he understands that without dignity, people will forcibly connect all disqualifying things with his black identity; without dignity, He will lose all confidence to hold his head high in American society.
Destined ending: Is dark skin the original sin?
Do identity issues only plague black people? Or is dark skin the original sin of a person being discriminated against for no reason? of course not. Identity issues are also reflected in white people like Tony. Discrimination will not let Tony off his Italian-American identity just because he is white. On a pouring rainy night, Tony and Shelly’s car was impounded by patrolling police for no reason. At first, the police only made things difficult for the dark-skinned Shelly and did not involve Tony. However, when the police learned from Tony’s driver’s license information that he After realizing his Italian identity, he immediately attacked Tony with harsh words: “I understand, I understand why you drove him around, because you are also half a ‘nigger’.” Of course, compared to what Shelly
encountered The various injustices and discrimination suffered by Tony are only passed over in the film by a harsh word from the police, but we cannot ignore the intention behind this sentence. The policeman’s words showed that in American society at that time, it was not just the black people who were discriminated against, but also the white people of Italian and Irish descent. It can be seen that the police saying that Tony is “half-nigger” conveys two meanings: First, the black group was at the bottom of the discrimination chain in American society at that time, and their black identity could be ridiculed and discriminated against by white people at will. Different levels, “half a ‘nigger'” implies that “although you are a white man, you are not any more noble than the ‘nigger’ behind you”. Second, it directly shows that Italian Americans are also a group subject to discrimination, regardless of their skin color. The film uses many clips to depict Tony’s Italian sense of family responsibility to highlight his Italian traits, and uses Tony’s passive and casual attitude towards work to allude to the discrimination against Italians in American society at the time.
Stills from the film “Green Book”
Tony and Shirley, one white and the other black, have both encountered varying degrees of discrimination in American society. So why is black skin called the original sin? Black people do not suffer discrimination because of their naturally dark skin. Rather, they have lost their material and spiritual homeland as objects of plunder and enslavement from the very beginning of their forced migration. Black people who have lost their homes and have low social status have naturally become isolated islands in American society, becoming helpless, discriminated and marginalized objects. At that time, black people were engaged in more arduous work than sharecroppers, but because of their low status as slaves, they were exploited almost free of charge by the entire American society. This accumulated injustice gradually formed a kind of discrimination and prejudice against dark skin. But this is by no means a reason to view dark skin as original sin.
We often say this: “The reason why the world is colorful and gorgeous is that it tolerates every color.” In the ending of “Green Book”, Shelly and Tony became close friends and reached a consensus between people of different races and identities. reconciliation and understanding. However, when we turn our attention from the movie back to contemporary society, the reality is not as expected. Various incidents of discrimination caused by different skin colors are still happening, and black people are still being treated unfairly and even deprived of their lives because they are “colored”.
In the four years since the movie “Green Book” ended, the social incidents caused by the identity issues of the black community have not ended. At the end of May 2020, Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Before his death, he begged “I can’t breathe.” ; In early March 2023, Otieno, a black man with mental illness, was also kneeled to death by multiple police officers on the way to the hospital for treatment. According to Otieno’s lawyer, Otieno’s hands and feet were handcuffed before his death. , but seven police officers knelt down and pinned him to the ground. After Otieno stopped breathing, the police did not take immediate treatment measures. The two cases are exactly the same. Behind the tragic ending is the fact that the black community cannot be truly accepted.
Whether it is Freud or Otieno, they are both Dr. Shirley in reality, but the problem of identity is revealed in the most extreme and cruel way in both of them. Although they, like Dr. Shirley, all wear the glorious coat of “equality” given to them by American society, after taking off the coat, they are still what others call “people of color” and are still struggling with their self-identity. struggle. Identity is not only an individual’s self-identity, but also the general recognition of the individual by the social group. When an individual is not accepted by the social group, it will inevitably lead to doubts about self-identity, thus separating the individual from the social group. On the other hand, the difference between Freud and Otieno and Dr. Shirley is that they live in a more tolerant and open modern society. Perhaps they no longer need to escape their black identities like Shirley, but when they encounter white police officers Still helpless when treated unfairly. They were held on the ground without dignity, with the white man’s knee pressed tightly to the throat of fate until the last moment of their lives.
The release of the movie “Green Book” opened a window for us to further understand the history of black oppression, but it did not choose to directly describe the cruelty, but revealed the details of Dr. Shirley as a black musician through the flowing details of daily life. suffered discrimination. There are still traces of history to follow, but life is submerged in the torrent of time, and most of it is unspeakable helplessness. In the days when Dr. Shirley and Tony get along, there is wit and humor due to the difference between black and white, and there is also pain and compromise due to the difference between black and white. The film internalizes this into a silent confrontation, which makes black people The question of survival or destruction in the gap between black and white is left to the audience to judge and think.