ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: THE PAST, THE FUTURE, AND THE GREEN BOOK

By James M. Decker

I’m not big on the Academy Awards, or awards shows in general. For the most part, whether for movies, television, music, or sports, I find these shows to be overly self-serving, wasteful mutual admiration societies. I usually have better things to do with my time than watch them. Beyond that, my taste in movies rarely coincides with those who select the awards. Of all the Best Picture winners in the last 20 years, I can count on one hand the number that I’ve seen. I still think “Tombstone” was robbed in 1993.

However, this past week, we had the chance to screen “Green Book” at the Grand Theatre in Stamford. As you may know, “Green Book” won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Picture and has been widely acclaimed. I figured it would at least be worth an evening at the movies with a box of Junior Mints (clearly the best movie candy, but that’s an essay for another day).

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I left the Grand absolutely blown away by the movie. The Academy Award Winners did right on this one. It’s an entertaining movie, but one that merits further societal discussion.

“Green Book” is based on the true story of pianist Don Shirley’s 1962 concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South. Shirley is accompanied by Tony Vallelonga, a driver and bodyguard hired by Shirley’s record label. Shirley is an African-American, classically trained pianist. He lives in a spectacularly adorned apartment above Carnegie Hall in New York City and moves in Manhattan’s sophisticated circles. Vallelonga is an Italian-American from the Bronx. He lives in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood near all his family, and previously spent time as a trash truck driver and a bouncer at the famed Copacabana nightclub. It is a vast understatement to call these men an odd fit to spend eight weeks driving cross-country together.

The film’s title is a reference to the Green Book, a travel guide created and published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966. The book provided information about hotels, restaurants, filling stations, and other travel establishments that would welcome African-American travelers at the peak of America’s Jim Crow era. Vallelonga uses the Green Book to guide their travels through territories unfamiliar to him and unwelcoming to Shirley.

I won’t give any spoilers, but Vallelonga opens the film with a dim view of African Americans, despite the chip on his own shoulder from his own experiences with discrimination as a man of Italian heritage. As Shirley and Vallelonga travel together, they connect personally, but also reveal themselves as imperfect humans. They deal with some awful, appalling instances of racial discrimination. Like imperfect humans, they don’t always respond well.

“Green Book” should make us think uncomfortably about American society. After it ended, a friend walked over, an older gentlemen in Stamford. He shook his head a little and said, “sometimes it’s hard to think that wasn’t very many years ago.” It wasn’t. 1962 seems like a lifetime ago in some respects, but many generations who experienced the discrimination of the 1960s, especially as children, are alive and well.

As I’ve written on this topic in the past, our society has advanced far past where it was in 1962, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Overt segregation and discrimination are harder to find, but ingrained, subconscious societal prejudices still exist. No matter our skin color, we’ve probably both experienced and propagated a few prejudices, even if subtle ones, and even if we didn’t intend to.

Sometimes, it’s good to be challenged to think about our society. It’s good to be uncomfortable as we think about the unsavory pieces of our past, so that we can ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. If you get the chance, go see “Green Book” or get it on DVD in the near future. Remember: we can’t change our society’s past, but we can do our part to make society’s future better for all.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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