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“There are some words they don’t allow to be spoken, sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.” Elvis Costello had his finger on the pulse of verbal behavior modification when he wrote and sang those words on his blistering social attack song “Lipstick Vogue” back in 1978.
There is no small irony in the fact that actor Viggo Mortensen got his ass handed to him for using the N-Word (outside an alt-right rally or perhaps the Oval Office, the only socially acceptable treatment of a word unless spoken by a black person) during a post-screening Q&A for his film “Green Book.” Never mind that Mortensen used the word in the context of an intellectual public discussion about a historically relevant film set in the ’60s. Art be damned. Mortensen was immediately chastised. He apologized profusely and repeatedly for his offense.
Still, the damage was done. Will Mortensen’s career suffer? Only time will tell. What seems evident is that he didn’t mean any harm, much less a racial slur, while talking about the thematic underpinnings of a period film for which he spent many hours preparing for and performing in. Still, no one’s BS detector went into the red.
By prohibiting anyone but black people from using the N-Word, identity-politics-infused white knight liberals have effectively ducked their responsibility and dodged accountability for America’s systemic racism, a grim vestige of slavery that continues the incremental genocide of blacks for well over a century following the Civil War.
What the word meant was always toxic. Now it’s the post-linguistics: its spelling, its two syllables. It wasn’t always so. Jim Farber’s 1970 book “The Student as Nigger” asked questions about oppression and education, not race. Does the trigger-happy cop who shoots an unarmed black person fit the N-Word designation regardless of his or her race? You can’t ask that question anymore. Bette Midler got in trouble for merely referencing John Lennon’s iconic song “Woman is the Nigger of the World” in a tweet. It ain’t 1972 anymore. It should be acceptable to describe the Republican party as the most niggardly political entity on the planet, but you can’t say that even though the N-ly word has no relationship whatsoever. It derives from an entirely different language group than the N-word.
Ignoring the intentionality behind a speaker’s use of the N-Word ignores the contextual reality on the ground. It distorts debate in a way that emphasizes by contrast the persecuted class that the privileged liberal pretends to defend or protect.
Which brings us to “Green Book,” a softball period drama about racism in America as witnessed via a road trip shared by a black man and a marginally racist white man.
Directed by Peter Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary”), this feel-good film is based on the real-life interactions between renowned black pianist Donald Shirley and Tony Lip, a foul-mouthed New York-born Italian bouncer whom Shirley hires to chauffeur him on a musical tour through the Deep South during the early ’60s.
The film’s title refers to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for African-American road trippers (published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green between 1936 and 1966) during the era of Jim Crow laws. Throughout North America blacks were refused access to food, lodging, restrooms and all sort of other conveniences whites took for granted. Driving while black, of course, is still a de facto crime in many American counties.
Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) delivers an immaculate portrayal of a gifted black musician who has been buffered from the underclass experience of blacks in America. Donald Shirley spent much of his life in Europe, where he spent most of his waking hours being tutored in classical piano. Shirley lives in an opulent apartment inside Carnegie Hall — in the very building of the legendary auditorium. Shirley sits upon an elevated throne when taking visitors. Shirley’s bisexuality is a secret.
Donald and Tony develop a Pygmalion relationship. Heaven knows Tony needs it. However Tony has a few cultural lessons for his mentor as well. Little Richard and the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken come as pleasant surprises for Donald, who speaks in an affected manner that might have earned a punch from a musician such as Miles Davis who, in spite of having been raised in a wealthy family, had no time for putting on airs. It’s doubtful that Davis and Shirley ever crossed paths.
“Green Book” excels as a white/black bromance crafted to fit release at the start of the holiday season. Not every white cop in the ’60s was a racist pig. Still, it’s doubtful that Shirley would have survived a roadside incident that occurs in this movie if it had occurred in 2018. To say that “Green Book” is out of step with 21st century America is a vast understatement.
“Green Book” isn’t all that interesting but for its inadvertent role as a potential conversation starter about Mortensen’s N-word-related chastisement — assuming anyone is willing to talking about it openly. Polite society can censor non-black people from using the N-Word but it won’t struggle against the ravaging effects of politicized and corporatized racism that intimidates, marginalizes and murders blacks every minute of every day.
“Green Book” is an entertaining and respectable movie about racism but it barely scratches the surface of the problem. Viggo Mortensen’s experience shows why. America is afraid of facing and addressing its demons. Ruining the lives of people on the humanitarian side of the issue, like Viggo Mortensen, comes all too easily.
Rated PG-13. 130 mins.