REVIEW: ‘Green Book,’ Racism and Christianity

My father told the story once of an all-white church in the Deep South that let the local Cub Scouts troop meet in its building.

When an African-American boy joined the troop, though, the church changed its tune. The Cub Scouts no longer were welcome.

The story was set in the early 1970s, before I was born, but I’ll never forget it. It had taken place where I grew up, among people I knew.

I kept asking: How could professing Christians — who, after, all, were commanded by Jesus to love God and love others — act this way? Did they read their Bibles? Did they ever examine their hearts?

Shirley knows he will encounter restaurants that won’t feed him and hotels that won’t house him. That’s why he and Tony take along the “Green Book,” which lists establishments that are welcoming to black people.

I thought about this story after I watched the movie Green Book (PG-13), which was inspired by a true story and follows the story of an African-American concert pianist named Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) who recruits a tough Italian-American named Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to be his bodyguard and chauffeur in a 1962 tour of the Deep South.

Shirley knows he will encounter restaurants that won’t feed him and hotels that won’t house him. That’s why he and Tony take along the “Green Book,” which lists establishments that are welcoming to black people. It is based on a real-life booklet, The Negro Motorist Green Book, that was used during desegregation.

The Green Book, though, can’t save him from awkward encounters in the concert halls and establishments where he is performing. For example, what will happen when he needs to use the restroom before, during or after the show at a mansion in Raleigh, N.C.? (He is told to go use the outhouse.) What will be done when he needs to eat supper before he performs in front of 400 people in a Birmingham, Ala., ritzy restaurant? (He is told to eat his meal in his closet-sized dressing room and come back when they’re ready to hear him.)

Green Book is a reminder of America’s ugly past — a time when races were segregated and professing Christians regularly discriminated.

In other words, to them he’s no different than a trained seal at the zoo. They’ll applaud. They’ll even pay him. But — according to the twisted logic of the people who invited him — he’s not equal to them. He’s second class.

“These are long-standing traditions,” the head of the restaurant tells him.

Green Book is a reminder of America’s ugly past — a time when races were segregated and professing Christians regularly discriminated. These were Christians like the people my dad knew.

God’s Word tells us that all people — of all races — are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Jesus summarized the Old Testament with two commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. It’s “basic Christianity” my 7-year-old son could explain. Yet for generations, millions of our ancestors got it all wrong.

No doubt, any of us can be blind to our own sin. Yet to see such a historical blight displayed on the big screen is eye-opening.

The movie is far from perfect. It contains nearly 70 coarse words, including 14 instances of GD and a couple of f-bombs. That’s too much language for me to endorse it. There’s also a non-nude scene that implies Shirley was gay. (In the real world, he never came out as homosexual.)

But if you can stomach the junk, you’ll find a message about courage and conviction in the face of hatred. Don Shirley, like many singers of his era, performed in front of racists with the goal of changing hearts. Eventually, it worked.

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.

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