“Green Book” Is Not “The Help”: It’s Better

DeAnte Washington, Staff Writer

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On Feb. 24, Peter Farrelly and the cast received an award for best picture at the 91st Academy Awards for their film, “Green Book.” This Oscars was a celebrated imbroglio; Green Book’s winning caused controversy in the film society. Director Spike Lee left in a distasteful manner after losing to “Green Book.” This insinuated an untouched topic that has been overlooked for years.

This year, two movies were nominated for best picture that were directed by African American men – Ryan Coogler and Spike Lee. Coogler directed one of the top-grossing films of 2018, “Black Panther,” and Lee was the director of “BlacKkKlansman.” All three films had a black lead, but “Green Book” was directed by a white filmmaker.  When Farrelly won the best picture, it reminded people of color the only time African American stories are valued is when a white man tells their story for them.

I had to take further action and watch the movie myself to see if it was worthy of the best picture or if the Oscars were once again in favor of the majority.  Going into the film, I had to keep my bias outside of the movie theater. I came in completely blind, not having any background knowledge of the film except for what a ‘green book’ was 50 years ago.

As I patiently waited for the previews to finish, I couldn’t help but form questions. What is everyone so worked up about?  What does the race of the director have to do with the movie? Was the plot of the movie told truthfully and raw?

The movie starts off in 1962 at a New York City nightclub. I was introduced to Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortenson.  It only took approximately 10 minutes for me to feel disgust while watching as Lip threw away two cups used by two black men hired to do repairs at his home.  

I had only assumed this would be another version of “The Help.” If Mahershala Ali came in with custodial attire, I would’ve demanded a refund.  As a black audience member, I am tired of movies where the black character is depicted as voiceless, hesitant, and uneducated for half of the movie.  Then, the white person who “doesn’t see color” comes to the rescue and determines the black character’s self worth for them. To my surprise, when Tony Lip stepped into an office with decadent decor, out came Don Shirley, played by Ali.  He walked with his hands behind his back in a sophisticated manner and sat on his ‘throne’. After that scene, it was hard to leave my seat. I have never recalled a movie that took place in the ’60s where it captivated an educated, wealthy black man.

I was optimistic about the treatment Shirley would receive because of how well he “fit the part.” Except, it was the 60’s, and any black person could have all the wealth in the world and still be dehumanized and segregated for the color of their skin. It was a twist on “Driving Miss Daisy,” except put into a black person’s perspective -what if the roles were switched? Was I expecting the south to be cordially inviting to black people? Absolutely not. But to see someone of his status portrayed in this time, I was dumbfounded.

Leaving the theater, there were various types of emotions from the audience.  Some were pleased, some intrigued and others left unfulfilled. The movie was heartfelt, compassionate and groundbreaking. I think the race of the director had no impact on this film’s chance of winning.  I still think it is important black people have a chance to tell their stories. I also believe there should be more black directors. If this were to be directed by a black director, I would hope it would be judged on the quality of the film, and not the color of who directed it.  

Ali spoke with Vanity Fair recently about why he wanted to take on this role.  Ali had his own views on media today and the representation of African-Americans who are neglected by their own community because of their status.

“There’s so many African-Americans who are told by other African-Americans that they’re not black enough, as well as [by] white people. ‘Oh, you don’t sound like me.’ ‘You’re not really from the hood.’ And so there is a whole pocket of people who don’t feel represented in media, who don’t feel represented in the world, who don’t have a place,” Ali said.

Shirley is the epitome of the identity crisis African-Americans face today if they are not the ‘stereotypical’ black person in America.

There were some parts in the movie I felt were not addressed and made clear.  I would’ve like to learn more about Shirley’s past and why he felt out of touch with his family and his race. This would have enriched the climax of the movie when Shirley gets into an argument with Lip and steps out of the car. Shirley expressed the difficulties of not being accepted by white people or black people and his struggle with what it means to be a man. This was not ignored but, in my opinion, it was downplayed. Farrelly could have brought us more glimpses into Shirley’s past life.  This would have helped the audience understand why he could speak several different languages, or why he felt out of touch with his own race. However, I believe these omissions had nothing to do with the director of the movie being white.

“Green Book” did not disappoint. It was a true masterpiece showcasing great work from both the director and the cast. It differs from the other movies that take place during the Civil Rights movement. It’s not like “The Help” or any other movie that portrayed African-Americans as needing a white savior  in order to earn respect from others. Lip played a part in maintaining Shirley’s safety, but Shirley had a different attitude from most black people portrayed in movies like this. He was persistent and spoke for himself. This movie shows black excellence and perseverance from start to finish.