In the past two weeks I have watched two thought-provoking movies:
Green Book and Same Kind of Different as Me.
The former (as you may know) won Best Picture for last year. I watched it on the plane.
The latter was from 2017, and I found it on Netflix.
I love them both for the lessons they teach about equality, the overt and covert ways racism shows up and affects us all, and division along class lines. I found both movies moving and powerful. But insight from a good friend has given me a deeper perspective.
Things that make you go hmmm….
Green Book is refreshing because it reverses some of the racial roles we are usually shown: The Black man (Dr. Don Shirley, a famous pianist – played by Mahershala Ali) has the money and education, and the White man (Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen) is his driver. Nice twist – especially for a film set in the 1960s.
When I got home I shared my enthusiasm for the film with my friend Peter, along with two great lines from the movie which I wrote down. He asked me who said the lines. Both were uttered by White characters. “Ah ha,” Peter said. That gave me pause.
Then I watched Same Kind of Different as Me. No role-reversals here along racial lines: The wealthy White couple (Ron and Deborah Hall, played by Renée Zellweger and Greg Kinnear) meet the homeless Black man (Denver Moore, played by Djimon Hounsou) at a soup kitchen. No twist, and it reinforces some stereotypes, but it was who got to be the hero that made the difference, and makes this film more powerful to me, in light of my friend’s question.
The impact of identity on perspective…
Both movies are based on true stories. And I’m sure the stories are massaged to fit the film formula. But someone gets to be the hero, and because my friend asked, I noticed. And I noticed the difference. That’s probably my light skinned privilege showing up. Or perhaps I can call it White privilege, even though I am biracial. As a kid, I saw the world mostly through my mother’s eyes. She is white. And it’s in these moments that this – and how it has shaped me – becomes more apparent to me.
In between watching the beginning half and the end half of Green Book, another good friend of mine had suggested that – unlike the barrage he had read on Twitter – it wasn’t another movie where the White man saves the day; that both characters helped each other.
I have to disagree.
While I think both characters do help each other in powerful and meaningful ways, Viggo Mortensen’s character definitely ends up as the hero. And that is a common racial narrative we are presented with over and over again.
I am humbled to say that if it hadn’t been for Peter’s question about who uttered the “good lines” that I was so touched by, and without the ensuing second film, I may have missed the subtlety. I may have rested on the idea that Green Book showed the change in both men (which was beautiful). That may have been the defining characteristic that stuck with me. And perhaps this is what gave the movie Oscar appeal. But had I rested on that idea of mutual change, growth, and support, I may have missed the subtlety of hero making – and the messages this sends.
Because by contrast, in Same Kind of Different as Me, the role of hero goes to the Black man. While both Ron and Denver’s lives are transformed, it’s Denver’s wisdom that permeates the film. Denver is the one that has the insights. Denver is the gift to the other man.
The subtlety of messaging…
It’s a subtle, yet important difference. And it’s what makes Denver the hero in this movie. Something we don’t see very often for a Black character.
What I have been reminded of, is the subtle ways we are fed and receive messages about who has worth, who is wise, and who can be the hero. These subtleties reinforce isms – both individual and systemic. In Green Book, it’s racism – and the subtlety of it can slip by us if we are looking at the obvious. In this movie, one of the obvious markers we may look at is that the driver is White, and the rich man is Black. But if we look deeper, at who is the hero, the narrative is familiar.
I have also been shown some of my own blindspots by what I failed to notice without the benefit of a different perspective; a Black perspective.
So, the hero in my story is my friend who asked me which character said the lines I was so struck by.
He’s the reason for the insight, and the opportunity to see more this week.
Thank you, Peter.