The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences boasts a robust legacy of ignoring black people’s opinions, and Sunday’s Best Picture Award for Green Book confirms that this tradition is alive and well. Since its debut, the tone-deaf racial-reconciliation biopic drew condemnation both critical and comical. The New York Times’s Wesley Morris skewered the film as a “particularly perverse fantasy” where “absolution resides in a neutered black man needing a white guy not only to protect and serve him, but to love him, too.” Joining the rhetorical spanking last week, Showtime’s Desus and Mero released their “Greenest Book” spoof, rated “WG for white guilt” and roasted the film as “the story of a white man brave enough to know a black person,” guaranteed to make white people “feel great about being white.”
However, while the Oscars continue to stoke backlash towards regressive depictions of Jim Crow, a new documentary that premiered Monday evening on the Smithsonian Channel promises viewers a more accurate, beautiful, and terrible history of Victor Hugo Green’s Green Book. Blending archival footage with expert interviews, filmmaker and CUNY professor Yoruba Richen conjures both the freedom and terror black motorists felt driving across the United States in the mid-20th century.
In The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, black bastions of leisure come back to life. Families ride cross-country to black resorts like Idlewild in northwest Michigan. There, they park along aside flashy Cadillacs and convertibles, joining 25,000 other weekend visitors. During the day, kids laugh and swim in the lake and ride horses. At night, adults don suits and minks to party at the Flamingo Club, where Louis Armstrong blows the trumpet and Dinah Washington belts her voice. “The ladies were glamorous, just so glamorous and the men were oh—just to die for!” an Idlewild resident recalls in the documentary. “Once they got there,” says historian Ronald J. Stephens “it was like heaven.”
Yet the road to the divine was treacherous. Idlewild, American Beach, Murray’s Dude Ranch, and other destinations welcoming black visitors were oases across the desert of American racism. The highways between presented lethal trails where a wrong stop risked anything from an embarrassing denial of service to a lynching. Fear ran so deep that black motorists regularly crashed their cars from exhaustion because they were too afraid to stop driving.
In resurrecting this world, Richen seamlessly swings between the anxiety and escape that characterized black travel during this era. A few hours before the premiere of The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, Richen spoke to The Nation about her documentary, what Hollywood’s depiction gets wrong in Green Book, and the imperative of empowering black storytellers.
The interview has been lightly edited.
Aaron Ross Coleman: I thought it would be interesting to ask your opinion on the Oscar win last night—if you saw the film and just what you thought of the win.
Yoruba Richen: Sure, there has obviously been a lot of criticism of the film, and not only by the family of Dr. Shirley. The fact is that this was a story about racism and purported to be about the Green Book. The title is Green Book. Yet it’s seen through a white lens. That’s a real problem. Hollywood still has a race problem—though there were some nice wins last night like Spike Lee winning his first Oscar and Rami Malik and some really good diversity, showing signs of change. But there are still some fundamental problems with how they tell our stories. And in terms of how the Green Book is portrayed, it is portrayed really inaccurately in the film. The places that they go to, that are listed in the Green Book, are dumps essentially, and that’s not what the Green Book was. There were many places, some of them the finest hotels for African Americans. And they only showed the Green Book being used in the South, which of course is a myth as well.
ARC: How would you characterize the stakes for African Americans using the Green Book in the middle of the 20th century? I just watched your documentary, and they talked about how people straddled the joy of travel and the risk of lynching. I was wondering if you could talk to the dangers of traveling at that time.
YR: As you saw in the documentary, there are places that were called Sundown Towns that African Americans had to get out of by the end of the day—by the time the sun went down. Some were explicit. Some had signs. Others rang a bell when black workers had to leave. These were not cities and towns that you’d want to be caught in, so that was the real danger. And they were mostly in the North and the West, not the South. In fact, the South was in some ways easier to navigate because it was explicit. You knew. There were signs. You knew what the rules were. Whereas in the North and the West, they didn’t have the signs, but the rules of segregation and the threat of violence still applied.
ARC: Right, I thought it was interesting: In the documentary, historian Jamon Jordan discussed the Great Migration in terms of terrorism, and he talked about black people being refugees from terrorism. Do you see the Green Book, in a similar light, as a handbook to navigate around terrorism?
YR: Absolutely, yeah. I mean the fact is, historically, American society has been a place of domestic terrorism for African Americans. That is the reality. The Green Book helped us navigate that and to travel safely and to be able to find places of recreation and pleasure and joy. Also, too, in terms of the Great Migration, I think it’s really interesting for us to look at that. I love what Jamon says in that bite—that we were refugees from terrorism. The Green Book helped us escape that as we were driving North or West, or as we went back to visit our families in the South.
ARC: I was curious about excerpts of the Green Book you quote in the documentary—from Victor Hugo Green. He talks about the day, hopefully in the near future, where the guide won’t be published and it’ll be like this celebrated day when it won’t be necessary. Have we reached that day?
YR: No, I don’t think that we’ve reached it. Even though the Green Book is no longer published, it’s still necessary for us to have to know the places that are welcoming to us. There have been many examples of the discrimination we still face while traveling—while driving. One of the most egregious examples is Philando Castile, when he was driving in his car. There’s been instances of racism when African Americans show up at Airbnbs or California vineyards or what have you. So no, it’s not over. And, we still need a guide that can point us to African-American businesses, and so we can support that. As the film talks about, that was one of the sort of unintended consequences of the end of segregation.
ARC: Do you think about the end of segregation and the promise of integration as a folly in any sense?
YR: I think we need to have a good hard look at what integration has actually meant for the black community in terms of wealth, in terms of ownership. We had to have those businesses during segregation, and we supported them. Integration, as things opened up, brought about the demise of a lot of those businesses and professions. I think we need to have a good hard look at the consequences of integration.
ARC: One of the critiques about the Green Book movie was that it centered white people in a way that they could explore the history and make them feel good. Your documentary is premiering on Smithsonian, which is a large mainstream outlet. Is there anything that you want people who may be experiencing this for the first time to come away with and to see?
YR: Yeah, definitely. The centering of whiteness, in a film called Green Book, is really problematic. What I want is people to feel what it was like to be navigating the roads of America as an African American. I want people to see that, despite the threat of violence and the segregation and humiliation, that we were always creating our own communities and creating our own places of pleasure and recreation. You never hear that story about us, and that is vital to who we are. That’s how we’ve been able to survive in this country. So that is really what I want people to see. And I want people to understand that all those things around freedom and mobility and the car, that we wanted them too, and that we achieved them too, but we had to have guides like the Green Book to help us do that.
ARC: Finally, is there any particular call of action that you envision people taking, whether it’s supporting black-owned businesses or maybe a call for more investment in them?
YR: I would say, support black-owned businesses, support black stories, let’s change the narratives. It’s about high time. Let’s change the narrative and take control of our own image and representation.