Forget the Oscars, Watch the Documentary on the Real Green Book

Once again, the Oscars have awarded a movie about race told from the perspective of a white protagonist, directed and written by white guys. But you don’t have to settle for Green Book. Tonight the Smithsonian Channel will air a documentary about the actual Green Book, which guided black motorists to safe businesses and lodging all over the country in annual installments from 1936 to 1966. The Green Book: Guide to Freedom was directed by Yoruba Richen (who also directed the 2013 marriage-equality documentary The New Black), who is a black woman, and the vast difference between Hollywood’s Green Book and her film is not lost on her. “We haven’t been in control of our own narrative so that’s what you’re going to get—you’re going to get something like the Green Book fiction film,” she told Jezebel during a phone interview last week.

Richen started working on her doc in 2017 and says she didn’t hear about Peter Farrelly’s movie until she was already in production on her own. Still, she told me that she believes the timing worked out for her. “It’s given us great visibility,” she said.

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Her movie is not just about Victor Green’s conception and execution of his Green Book, but touches on a number of attendant issues like the black middle class, the Civil Rights Movement, women business owners, and the predominantly black vacation spot of Idlewild, Michigan. In shedding light on parts of this country’s history rarely discussed in mainstream venues, Richen’s movie overturns a stone and reveals a universe. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.


JEZEBEL: How did you decide what stories you would tell and what businesses you’d touch on?

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It was a process of figuring out where we could go that would be visually interesting, places that were still there like the Gaston Motel, and then also the themes that we were trying to elucidate. I knew early on that I wanted to talk about the black middle class and recreation and where we were going for vacation. That’s not something you normally hear about in terms of the African American experience. So that’s how I figured that Idlewild would be an amazing place to go to and film. Some of the stuff in terms of the women business owners, which is a section in the film, became obvious in terms of looking through the Green Book and seeing who was in there and realizing that there were so many women’s businesses that were listed. It’s a combination of figuring out geographically how we wanted to create a road trip for the viewer and places that we could go and film that were still there and what were the themes we wanted to bring out and elucidate in the film.

The Green Book provides a tangible metaphor for how much of black culture has involved navigating around oppression to find comfort and joy and a tenable life.

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Absolutely. One of the interviewees says “a parallel universe.” I think in some ways that still describes what we navigate to. It’s kind of like the veil that Du Bois talks about. I think that’s a them that is very relevant even today.

At what point did you hear about the narrative movie Green Book?

I think it must have been last summer. We heard there was something in the works, but we didn’t know anything specific. And then when the movie was at Toronto [in September 2018], that’s when I really heard about it.

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What did you think about that Green Book project as you were preparing your own?

As we were making it, we knew about other projects coming out about the Green Book. You kind of can’t really worry about that because you have no idea what those things are. You just know about the film that you’re making. I feel very happy for the timing of it. It’s given us great visibility. I couldn’t have asked for better timing.

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What did you think about the movie?

I finally saw it a couple of nights ago. The thing that really stood out to me is the film didn’t really talk about the Green Book. It’s called Green Book, but it’s not really about that, it’s about the two men at the center of the film. But also the thing that was frustrating was that the way they portrayed the places in the Green Book. The only two places you got to see were kind of dumps. That’s not all the Green Book was . There were 9,500 listings over the course of 30-some odd years. Some of the finest establishments that African Americans owned or had access to were in it. Also, they only use the Green Book in the South, and that wasn’t the case. People needed the Green Book all over the country because segregation was all over the country. It sort of plays into the mythology that segregation was just something that happened in the South.

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What struck me the most about Green Book is that movies about race are still being released that are from the point of view of white characters.

Absolutely, that’s definitely the case and it seems very retro. I don’t understand the minds of Hollywood, but that’s the story they chose to tell. Hopefully people will watch our film and get the real story of the Green Book.

As a black woman filmmaker, how do you feel about representation in Hollywood?

I feel like we’re in a new day where there’s an acknowledgement at least that different stories need to be told—stories of people of color. Never before have we seen so many black writers, directors, and TV shows. That’s totally different from what I grew up watching on television when there was only The Cosby Show. We’re in a really great moment. It’s still obviously an extremely small percentage because it’s been overwhelmingly, since the birth of the industry. Only now are we starting to scratch at the surface. We need to be telling our own stories and our stories need to be seen through own lens. When we are in control of our own narrative is when representation and these stories will emerge.

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Because another thing about Green Book is that it was directed and written by white men.

Exactly.

Did you find any evidence of white patronization to businesses that were primarily black owned and patronized in the Green Book? I suspect that these businesses were welcome to white people, despite many white businesses not being welcome to black people.

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Absolutely. We know that Alberta [Ellis, who owned Alberta’s Hotel] had white people in her hotel. She would talk about that for her, this was a business. She had musicians, too. I think there was a group of country musicians that would stay at her hotel. My understanding of how segregation really worked is that African American places would not discriminate against people coming in.

In the movie, you include a quote from Victor Green, who said that when there was no more need to publish the book, racial equality would be reached in the U.S. The book ceased publication in 1966 and we’ve yet to experience true equality in this country. Why was it important to feature those words nonetheless?

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That signifies the hope that African Americans had. That’s what got us through: There will be one day where this virulent racism won’t exist. That’s not the case. And then there of course were the unintended consequences of integration, which were part of the demise of some of these businesses.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom premieres Monday, February 25 at 8 p.m. ET on Smithsonian Channel and is now available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app.

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Rich Juzwiak

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.