Much has been said about the contentious Academy Award-winning film, Green Book. The feature film is based on the alleged friendship of Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) —a world-renowned Black queer musician and his driver —a white man named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Shadow And Act called Green Book a “white savior film,” and some of Dr. Shirley’s family members have spoken out against it, exclusively telling Shadow And Act that it’s “a symphony of lies.” One of the more alarming elements about the controversial film has been its erasure of Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book. Though it’s titled Green Book, the ground-breaking travel guide is hardly mentioned in the movie.
In the midst of all of the back and forth regarding Green Book — acclaimed filmmaker Yoruba Richen is turning her lens back on Victor Hugo Green, the well-connected Black postal worker who published the Black guide for travelers from the 1930s to the 1960s. In her superb documentary, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, Richen examines the history of The Negro Motorist Green Book and the legacy of Black-owned businesses that still prevail more than fifty years after the last Green Book was published. Ahead of the film’s premiere, Richen sat down to talk to Shadow and Act about the history of travel in the Black community, the Black middle class in Jim Crow America, and, of course, Green Book.
“I was approached to direct this film in the summer of 2017,” Richen revealed. “I thought I knew my Black history, but this was an aspect that I did not know, and I was immediately intrigued and interested because it gave us such a rich way to understand various themes that we explore in the film. It just seemed like such a great way to uncover this piece of history and explore these things that we usually don’t get to explore when we talk about the Black experience.”
Though racial brutality was obviously a very real concern in Jim Crow America, avoiding danger was not the sole reason for The Negro Motorist Green Book’s popularity. “The Green Book was also a document that listed places where African Americans could go for vacation and for recreation,” The New Black director explained. “That was something that has always been a part of our experience — since forever. There was a middle class and upper class that created these communities and made these vacation spots thrive. That’s one aspect of the film that I was really excited to bring to life.”
Though we often talk about The Great Migration, there has been little emphasis on what the automobile has meant to the Black community. Richen was careful to examine Black mobility in her film. “I wanted to explore what the car meant to us, and what it meant to us in terms of a status symbol— entering the middle class,” she reflected. “Then there was exploring what it meant to us in terms of our needing to avoid, or wanting to avoid the humiliation of segregated transport. The car also enables us to leave the South and go to the North during the Great Migration, and then also come back and visit relatives in the South and maintain those connections. The Negro Motorist Green Book allows us to explore that.”
In the feature film Green Book, Black women are virtually erased not just from the story, but from the tapestry of 1960s America. Richen discovered that within the numerous businesses listed in the Green Book, Black women owned many of the most successful businesses, including hotels, restaurants, and beauty shops. “Those are the stories that emerged,” she said adamantly. “We actually looked in the Green Book when we were making the film and saw how many women were advertising in it. Women entrepreneurship has been something that has been in our community — but not told. The fact that it hasn’t been told is what’s fiction, is what’s a lie. That is part of our story and to ignore that—the absence is what’s false.”
The Green Book: Guide to Freedom also debunks many long-held notions about segregation in this country —particularly what it meant to be Black while living in the North. “It’s part of the mythology in this country that racism is something that’s just in the South,” the NAACP Image Award nominee unpacked. “As we know, that’s not true. As we say in the film, most of the Sundown Towns (places where it was illegal for Black people to be outside after sundown) were in the North and the West. In some ways, it was easier to navigate the South because it had the obvious signs.”
One of the things Richen found most frustrating about the feature film was the depiction of the establishments where Dr. Shirley stayed. “I actually saw the film for the first time a couple of nights ago,” she explained. “It was so frustrating. The places that were shown were dumps basically. That’s obviously not all that was in the Green Book. First off, it had ninety-five hundred listings between 1936 and 1967. These were places where stars like Nat King Cole and James Brown stayed. There just seemed to be a false impression, but this is why we need to tell our own stories.”
Richen continued, “We need to have these stories that are our history and experience through our lens because then you get a different kind of story. I do think that the [feature film] has raised awareness about The Negro Motorist Green Book. Now, hopefully, people will do their own research and watch this film and find out the real story —the true story. I don’t know if its done more harm than good, I think that there is something to be said about awareness and that it’s in the lexicon now in a way that it maybe hadn’t been before.”
Reflecting back on what Victor H. Green was able to do with the Green Book for the Black community and Black businesses —Richen suggests that’s where our focus needs to be. “What has been the impact of integration on our wealth and our ownership of businesses?” she asked. “I think that’s something we really need to take a hard look at as a community. I feel like we talk about it amongst ourselves, but it’s something we really need to have a look at. We need to discuss how we can reclaim that and what that means to own our businesses and how that contributes to the wealth of our people.”
The Green Book: Guide to Freedom premieres Monday, February 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel and is now available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide