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How ‘Green Book’ Gives Short Shrift to a Gay Life

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

I saw “Green Book” in a crowd of older white people — the precise audience this film had in mind. Once it was over, they clapped and commented to one another about how good the movie had been. “That was the best film I’ve seen in years!” one woman said as she walked out with a smile on her face.

I could understand why.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are wonderful. As a white driver, Frank Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip, and his black employer, the composer and musician Don Shirley, in the 1962 South, they have genuine chemistry that plays like a Miles Davis solo with a Cannonball Adderley accompaniment. At the end of the film, Frank’s journey from racist to respectful employee is convincing.

There have been plenty of objections to the movie, which is up for five Oscars, including best picture, at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24. There’s the simplistic way it portrays race and its decision to tell the story exclusively through the eyes of a white person, Vallelonga, learning to see the humanity of a black one. I, too, was troubled by these flaws, but what bothered me most was a scene that almost no one is talking about — and everyone should be.

About halfway through the film, Shirley is arrested at a Y.M.C.A. in Memphis. The police have caught him having sex with a man we have never seen before and do not see or hear from again. The scene comes as a shock: Shirley has been largely solo most of the film, and there is no indication until then that he is either gay (indeed, there is mention of a past marriage to a woman) or bisexual. After a few tense moments, the situation is resolved (as many situations are in this movie) with Tony Lip saving the day. He pays off the police officers, but Shirley is hardly grateful and chides his driver: Tony is “rewarding” the officers for treating the men in such an inhumane way … and that’s it. It is never brought up again.

To be sure, for the era, Tony Lip has a rather progressive view of Shirley’s sexuality. Tony indicates he’s accepting of gay people from his time working in New York nightclubs. Still, we hear nothing more of Shirley’s relationship with his sexuality for the remainder of the film. No delving into what it means to be a black man attracted to men in 1960s America. And no wrestling with the enormous stress that Shirley must have felt.

The way this film deals with Shirley’s sexuality is especially problematic in the wake of recent events. A few weeks ago Jussie Smollett, a star of the Fox show “Empire” and a singer-songwriter, was hospitalized after he was attacked in Chicago by two men shouting racial and homophobic slurs at him, according to a police statement. The men hit him in the face, poured an “unknown chemical substance” on him and wrapped a rope around his neck, the statement said, and the police are investigating the attack as a possible hate crime. This is why what “Green Book” is doing to Shirley’s sexuality is, at best, damaging, and, at worst, reprehensible.

It is not safe to be a same-gender-loving person in 2019, more than 50 years after the incidents in “Green Book.” As Smollett and countless others can attest, there are still many spaces in this country that black men who love other men cannot go without concern for their safety. (Indeed other lesbian, gay and trans people of color face similar threats.) In “Green Book,” Don Shirley’s life was in jeopardy because of whom he loved. His livelihood may very well have been taken away if word ever got out about who he lay down with. By merely nodding at the subject, the film fails to treat this complex man with the dignity he deserves. And by not exploring Shirley’s lived experience, the film allows us to move past the threat that he, Smollett and others face.

There aren’t many black and gay characters in popular films and shows today. Smollett’s “Empire” role is one. The central character of “Moonlight” is another. With that drama winning the Academy Award for best picture just two years ago (and with Ali winning best supporting actor for his role as a sympathetic adult in a gay black boy’s life), “Green Book” feels like a miss.

Dr. Shirley’s family has been outspoken about how the film mischaracterizes him and his relationship to them. The screenplay essentially turns Shirley into a black man who thematically shapeshifts into whoever will make the story appealing to white audiences — and that’s inexcusable.


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