#FrancisOnFilm: Green Book

25 March 2019

Green Book, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, just came out on Netflix and in various other places. Its success has been controversial, largely because the story is told through the eyes of the white driver, Tony Vallelonga (Tony Lip). Reportedly, no members of the family of Don Shirley (Dr. Shirley), the black concert and jazz pianist who employed Lip as his driver for a pre-Christmas tour through the segregated Deep South, were contacted before or during the making of the movie.


Critics such as Brooke Obie have called the movie a "white man's savior film" that harms Dr. Shirley's legacy, his family, and Black people as a whole. The reply to this objection has been that the story is Tony Lip's, not Dr. Shirley's, so there was no need to contact the latter's family. A contributing author to the film was Tony Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga; the story was based on interviews with Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley before they died, and on the letters that were written to Lip's wife during the trip.


But is this reply—that the story is Tony Lip's—adequate? I don't think so. One reason is that the movie represents itself as more than just Tony Lip's story. It claims it is "Inspired by a True Story," which invites the viewer to see the story in abstraction, as a story rather than Tony Lip's story. The movie's postscript is similarly detached from the perspective of any particular character: it tells us what happened to Tony Lip and his wife afterwards, what happened to Dr. Shirley, that the two remained friends, and that they died in the same year (as though that somehow cemented bonds between them, or put them on a level playing field in some way). In between, we see scenes about the life of each of them, and we hear each of them apparently speaking in their own voices about their reactions to what is happening. The narrative point of view isn't just Tony Lip's, it's the truth of the story.


But suppose the movie represented itself more consistently as Tony Lip's story. Would there be anything wrong about that? A case to be made that Black people are harmed by the movie? I think there would be, and that recent philosophical writing about an approach to knowledge called epistemic injustice can suggest why.


Epistemic injustice, as highlighted by Miranda Fricker, considers how possibilities for knowledge can be suppressed by social conditions of structural injustice. Epistemic injustice can take many forms. One form is that testimony can be given less credence because of the social situation of the person testifying. Women are given less credence than men when they claim sex was non-consensual, or Black witnesses less trust when they report police harassment.


As Kristie Dotson points out, testimony may not only be discounted but may also be smothered or never even find voice. In the 1962 Birmingham, Alabama, of Green Book, we see Dr. Shirley go down the road to perform at great acclaim at a bar where Blacks are served, after he has refused to perform at the country club that would not allow him to eat with the other guests. In the bar, the Black patrons are celebrating happily.


We do not see the full picture of the Birmingham of the early 1960s where officials responded with high pressure fire hoses to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s civil rights campaign, or where angry segregationists responded to desegregation by bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church. To be sure, we do see threats in the movie, but they are muted or bought off. The last scene involving police is a happy one helping the travelers on their way. This wider context of Birmingham is testimonial injustice: what the movie does not show.


Another form of epistemological injustice is hermeneutical injustice: that persons may find significant areas of social experience obscured from understanding owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation. People experiencing hermeneutical injustice may be unable to conceptualize what is happening to them; for example, "sexual harassment" went unrecognized before Catharine MacKinnon gave it a name. Accounts of hermeneutical injustice often describe how its victims became newly aware when given the conceptual tools to recognize their experiences and validate them. These victim-centered accounts describe how victims are doubly wronged, by the wrongful harassment and by the epistemic injustice that disables them from the full understanding they need to gain the self-confidence to act against this wrong.


Other writers, such as Laura Beebe, point out that the wrongs of hermeneutical injustice can also affect those who are privileged. The privileged, too, lack understanding in a context of structural injustice in which wrongs like sexual harassment have not even been identified. Of course, this does not mean they are harmed, much less wronged—indeed, their obliviousness may embolden them to act in ways that entrench their privilege. Nonetheless, they may be morally lessened as a result—and some might even be morally improved when given the conceptual tools.


Along these lines, there's a case to be made that the Tony Lip of Green Book was morally impoverished by hermeneutical injustice. Here's why: the concept of racism furthered by the movie is that of overt prejudice, but this is an impoverished idea of racism. The movie starts out by portraying Lip as an overt racist, grumbling about the Black workers at his home by saying "I didn't know they were going to send eggplants." Tony throws out the glasses used by the workers—and his wife Dolores later removes them from the trash. As the movie progresses, and he observes the ways in which Dr. Shirley is treated, Lip supposedly comes to understand the wrongs of racism and correct his ways.


The film ends with a heartwarming scene of friendship. Viewers are encouraged to come away with the uplifting message that if only we could educate people about the harms of prejudice through direct experience, racism might be overcome around the family dinner table. We might enter the ideal world of a post-racial society, a world in which race is like eye-color. This world, Richard Wasserstrom wisely observed, is not at all like our own. The problem with Green Book is not just that its writers didn't talk to Dr. Shirley's family; it's that they didn't recognize that racism is a structural phenomenon that continued to affect who Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley were and could be.  

Comments (3)

MJA's picture


Tuesday, March 26, 2019 -- 8:36 AM

Shinning the light on The

Shinning the light on The Green Book and stories like it brighten the dark pathway of inequity that can lead us ultimately to the Promised land., to the truth. Surely we need light to help find our way. =

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, April 1, 2019 -- 9:51 PM

This post is well written. I

This post is well written. I'm going to take another look at this movie and see if I can ferret out this failure to recognize the structural phenomenon of racism. I'm honestly not sure what a structural phenomenon is?

"The" problem with this movie is that it's not everything to everybody. I doubt Shirley was near as affected as Lip by this trip. I will give a good watch and judge the change in these two characters again. Racism is how we treat the least talented and beautiful others. Lip showed his ugly side more than once here while Shirley not so much in my first take. Lip is the center because he changes. Shirley is evergreen.

Having read this...


... I don't see exactly much hope of change to this structure... and now that I think of it... maybe I get it after all.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 11, 2019 -- 10:35 AM

Light? Shirley. I do not know

Light? Shirley. I do not know how a 'dark pathway of inEquity' can 'lead us ultimately' to any sort of promised land. This does not compute for me, but the chips are getting a bit corroded from space and time, so I'll plead obsolescence. Now, movies are sometimes enlightening, I'll grant that much. But I do not generally view them with an intention towards moral betterment---they are not philosophical tools, although they might be viewed as some manifestation of Dennett's 'intuition pumps'. I don't know if Dan would buy this...it might stretch his 'Intentional Stance' a bit too far for comfort. But, let's say, just for argument, that movies, books, plays, and art ARE intuition pumps. You can think about that from here and, on reflection, agree or disagree. Art is important in culture, as much for giving notions of how we ought to live as how we ought not... thinking can be useful, whether it leads to epiphany or caveat.