Green Book or the Bible: A Film's View On A Gospel Issue

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in  Green Book.  Patti Perret / Universal Studios

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book. Patti Perret / Universal Studios

The end credits rolled and I just shrugged my shoulders. It was okay. Nothing too spectacular about it, film-wise. There wasn't anything new even when it came to the story. Yet this film, Green Book, had caught so much backlash and criticism. Over what? Over what I believe to be its display of racism. Or rather it's sugar coated version.

If you haven't seen the film yet and want to see it, don't worry I have no spoilers here (whew!). But to summarize, the film is about an Italian American, Tony the Lip from the Bronx who becomes the driver for an African American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, as they travel through the racially segregated south in 1962. They face overt racism, side looks, and cultural stigmas. At the end of the film, Tony overcomes his own racist tendencies (I will talk about this is more) and he becomes close friends with Donald. What should have made this even better is that it's based on a true story. Should have.

What's the big deal?

So what's the big deal with this film? Well, you may have not seen it, but I'm sure you heard of the Oscar controversy. Green Book won several Academy Awards including best picture. This won against Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman (which I haven't seen yet). As a result, people have criticized the vote as painting a watered-down approach to racial issues and trying to undercut tensions. Some have even compared it to when the film Driving Miss Daisy (a very similar storyline) won back in 1990 against, you guessed it, Spike Lee and his film Do the Right Thing.

The family of Donald Shirley has also critiqued the film calling it “inaccurate.”

Film as a window into the culture

I'm not a film critic, so this post isn't a critique of the film itself. What I've been very interested in is seeing the increased critique of film's addressing (or failure to in most cases) of racial issues. This isn't anything new. As mentioned before we see the same thing happen with Driving Miss Daisy over two and a half decades ago. More recent topics dealing with film and race are whitewashing scandals and replacing characters in book adaptations with other ethnic people. When The Hunger Games came out years ago, people were in an uproar that characters Rue and Thresh were black in the film (they were black in the book too, by the way). Whether for good or bad, ethnic representation in film has become a hot button issue.

This isn't just about diversity. It's also about authenticity in portraying the truly horrific nature of the sin of racism. There is a tendency in some movies to be more realistic, but those are usually set during slavery times (Roots, 12 Years a Slave). Most others are set in or around the Civil Rights era and tend to be more geared to see resolution or restoration of races. I would call these the feel-good films of racism. It is these feel-good films that have a tendency to win awards. I'm not discrediting such movies as being powerful or true. They tend to be very good films. Remember the Titans, anyone?

The question we must answer then is, what does this say about our culture? What role does film play in speaking into our racially charged time? Why should we care about films being ethnically diverse when applicable? Simply put, the present American culture wants to speak into racial issues because they desire racial reconciliation. At the very least, we desire to see people of different ethnic races joined together. We want to do better in this realm. That's not a bad desire. I would say that's a good desire.

What the critics got right

Still, the criticisms were not unfounded. The feel-good reconciliation films are missing an opportunity to explore the depths of racial issues. Perhaps this was trimmed back to receive a PG-13 rating and thus have a larger audience base. I understand that.

However, this brought about a watered down effect. For instance, in Green Book, the dialogue on racial issues was reduced to quips with random tense moments that seemed to resolve itself in a day. Then there were the reverse stereotypical roles. The white guy ate fried chicken while the black guy never touched it (not until the white guy gave him some). The black guy spoke clearly and elegantly while the white guy spoke crudely. Now I understand what they were doing with this, but that isn't addressing racial issues nor did it allow for any deeper dialogue on race.

Much more, Tony's character development and recognizing his own racism was progressive but not really explored. It just sort of happened through hanging out with Dr. Shirley. There was no real recognition he was wrong. He just changed. Now again, I understand that you only have a short period of time to tell a very in-depth story. But again, many saw this as missing the mark.

What the critics missed

Now while I think the critics were right to point out the lack of gravitas in such films, they missed one important aspect in their criticism. True racial reconciliation begins with relationship. From a Christian worldview, we see this throughout the gospels and the letters to the church. It first begins with a relationship with God in the form of repentance of sin and salvation. This leads to us seeing and loving each other. When we love each other, we do so based solely on and out of the love we have in Christ. So when racism pokes its ugly head into the picture, it should see and be repulsed by the sight of our church unity across ethnicities.

The book of Acts, chapters 9-11 show the progression of this. The church in its infancy was growing at an unparalleled rate. Rather a God-ordained rate! Next thing you know the church is in Samaria. The dogs and "half-breeds" as the Jewish people believed them to be. They would do everything they could to avoid contact with them. Yet you see the gospel enters Samaria through Philips preaching in Acts 8:4-8. Then you see Peter in chapter 9 is hanging with fellow believers in Lydda and Joppa, Samaritan cities!

But the gospel doesn't there. After hearing from the Lord, Peter takes the gospel to a Roman Centurion. He goes to the house, which was unlawful by Jewish standards to even associate with a non-Jewish person (Acts 10:28). Yet Peter preaches the gospel, they receive it, and Peter stays and fellowships with them.

I hope you see where I'm coming from. Gospel-driven relationships bring an end to racism! That is something I don't believe Hollywood can capture fully.

Film or the Gospel?

We can watch films like Green Book for entertainment. We can watch it for inspiration to a certain level. But we cannot hold it up as the model nor the standard for what racial reconciliation should be.

True racial reconciliation is hard work. It is shedding tears at night over the sin of racism. It is having the same conversations over and over. It is asking all the questions. It is going out of our comfort zone and being in fellowship with people of different ethnicities but under the same banner of gospel victory. It is not always seeing immediate fruit. It is late night prayers. It is seeing your own flawed views and being open to the Lord to change your view. And at its core, it is having a relationship with God and with each other. These are things that film cannot depict. But then again, isn't seeing it in real life so much better?

Matt Bryant