Spoiler Alert: Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture. And some people are really pissed off about that. What is the Truth about Green Book that makes it so polarizing?
I loved Green Book, and I smiled when it won Best Picture. My smile faded a bit as I watched the producers acceptance speech. (You an watch it here on YouTube). I thought it weird that Vigo Morenson and Carrie Fischer got more praise than Mahershala Ali, who played the musical genius Dr. Don Shirley. And neither Shirley, the Green Book, nor civil rights were mentioned.
Then I read criticism of the movie by Spike Lee and others. I became downright confused. For some people of color, this movie win, and the silence about Don Shirley, became another story of marginalization. They saw what should be a black story co-opted by white film makers, with a white man put in the role of savior.
Many white presenting people share this perspective. On Facebook, the writer Peter Birkenhead compared Green Book to the story of Anne Frank, told from the viewpoint of “Miep Geis, one of the gentiles who helped hide her.” In this version, Miep is the hero and center of the story, and anti-semitism gets reduced to stereotypes. And when the movie wins best picture, not a single writer or producer accepting the award is Jewish.
How was I to square my reactions liking the movie with this true and authentic reaction from some people of color and their allies? And how could Mussar help me understand the truth about Green Book?
First, I stepped back and remembered that the screenplay was cowritten by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga. It isn’t a movie about a black man dealing with racism in the South. It tells the story of a white man who took a job working for a black man and became friends with him. It is a story Nick is telling about his dad. If Miep’s daughter decided to write a movie that made her mom the hero, that would be ok with me.
Why do I say this? Because I had been telling people the movie was about Don Shirley. Yet there were no scenes with Don Shirley that did not also have Tony Lip in them. I was confused in part because I was trying to make Green Book a civil rights movie, which it isn’t. It is a relationship movie, between people of different backgrounds during the last days of the Jim Crow Era.
Second, we Americans have a long history of marginalizing and silencing people of color. I interpret reactions against the movie from some people of color as “Here we go again. I’m tired of this crap.” That is the Truth from their perspective, and I am trying my best to hear them and honor them.
As Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not judge your fellow until you have come to [their] place.” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Since I have not been a person of color, I don’t know what they have been through. But I know enough to know they are not wrong for thinking this way.
Third, it is ok for me to like the movie, and have my own Truth. It was wonderful watching the movie with my father and 16 year old daughter. She had never seen what it was like in the South, when people of color used the Green Book to know where they would be allowed to stay and eat. My father shared that when Don Shirley came to Syracuse, NY in 1970ish, the hotel would not let him stay there. Dr. Shirley stayed with a Syracuse University faculty member.
Now that I’ve shared with you how I processed this movie in the Mussar way, I hereby invite you to try a Mussar Practice. After all, the point of Mussar is personal growth. I hope you’ll give this practice a try.
**********Here’s the Mussar Practice*********************************
See the Truth from another’s perspective. The people who dislike Green Book and I have different Truths. This is part of the human condition. Here are three steps to judge the comprehensive Truth about Green Book.
First, think about your own Truth about the movie. What leads you to that perspective? Have you seen it yourself, or are you reacting to other people’s reactions? What about you makes you have that perspective?
Second, pick a perspective different from yours. What is the Truth of persons of color who don’t like the movie? What about them makes them have that perspective. If their story were your story, would you be reacting the same way?
If you are one of the people uncomfortable about Green book, think about the Truth of the people who are annoyed with the backlash against the movie. Are they all white supremacists in the making? What about them makes them have that perspective. If their story were your story, would you be reacting the same way?
Third, integrate the truths together. Allow your Truth to evolve. Accept that it is ok to have a different Truth from someone else. You can both have different Truths and be in relationship together. After all, isn’t that one of the messages of Green Book?
Mussar teaches that only the Divine sits on the Throne of Truth, meaning that humans are incapable of knowing the Truth from all perspectives. As humans, we need to do some work to see the Truth from multiple perspectives.
Finally, Truth is key for Tikkun Olam, repair of the world.
The world stands on three things: truth, justice, and peace. Truth brings justice, which results in peace.” –Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel
Until we can acknowledge the Truth about historical and current marginalization, we will never have justice. If you are skeptical about marginalization, start with an academic description, like this one here.
At the end of the day, it isn’t about Hollywood. It is about the pain of our fellow humans.
How do you see the Truth about Green Book?
What steps will you do to see the Truth from another’s perspective?
Want to learn more about the Truth and Mussar? Start with the Soul Trait Quiz.