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History Behind the Headlines: White Stories of Black Lives

At the Oscars on Sunday, the award for Best Picture went to “Green Book,” a film loosely based on the real-life relationship between classically-trained African American jazz pianist Don Shirley, and racist, Italian-American Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Tony is Don’s chauffeur and unofficial bodyguard as they drive through the segregated South on tour in 1962. The title refers to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide for African American travellers to find black-friendly businesses, a copy of which is given to Tony at the beginning of the film.

[To learn more about the “Green Book,” listen to the Traveling While Black segment from our American Tourism show.]

While “Green Book” has reached a high level of acclaim, its Oscar win was accompanied by multiple angles of criticism, perhaps the most significant of which come from the real Don Shirley’s family. Shirley’s family has been outspoken in contradicting, among other things, the film’s portrayal of Don and its mischaracterization of the relationship he had with Tony. These discrepancies are attributed to the family’s absence from the production of the film, co-written by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga.

Within these criticisms lies a broader frustration about white story-tellers using black stories and characters to address a primarily white audience. In “Green Book,” this takes the form of a racial reconciliation fantasy which mutes the complex realities of interracial relationships and the cultural disconnect that these relationships, in the film’s universe, embody and ultimately smooth over. But if we take a step back from Hollywood, we see that the cooptation of black stories has a long and damaging history in American culture, functioning as a tool for white supremacy by appropriating and silencing black voices.

One of the most pervasive examples of this appropriation came in the form of Jim Crow and Zip Coon, two popular characters derived from blackface minstrelsy. Together, these characters subsumed African American figures, stories, and experiences as comical, backwards, and forever associated with the south. As black characters created by and for white Americans, they helped control the mainstream narrative of the black experience in American culture.

[To learn more about the history of minstrelsy and blackface listen to our Faces of Racism show.]

While minstrel characters sought to stand for black experience, the actions and beliefs of outstanding black leaders were attacked and often ultimately misrepresented. Following his death in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. became an American icon known for his message of colorblindness in his “I Have a Dream” speech. King believed in this part of his vision, but as his legacy ascended in American consciousness, it narrowed in terms of what it stood for. White America latched onto the elements of King that were comfortable, and forgot the threatening aspects of King – his challenge to American imperialism and capitalism itself. He became, to many Americans, a symbol of celebration of America as a land of post-racial equality.

[To learn more about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. listen to our Real Martin Luther King show]

Within the story of “Green Book,” the relationship between Don and Tony represents a similar narrative thread to the legacy of MLK – not of a post-racial America, but rather one in which racial and cultural divides are inevitably bridged by sheer proximity. Furthermore, in the assembly of this story of racial reconciliation, the filmmakers failed to recognize, or even discover, the perspectives of Don Shirley’s family. Two processes are at work, one of distortion and one of omission, and together they place the film within a long-standing history of white narratives of black lives.

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