‘Green Book’ : White, Black and in Between

“Green Book” is, we are told, “inspired by a true story” about an Italian-American from the Bronx, Tony Vallelonga,  whose rough edges are just what an educated African-American virtuoso pianist, Don Shirley, needed for his journey that takes a hard left into the Deep South in 1962.

Scenic Tour of the Times

The title comes from a guidebook, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” which was published from 1936-1967, promising “vacation without aggravation.” Like a more specialized travel guide, the book indicated which towns allowed people of color to stay out past sundown and which hotels, restaurants and gas stations would serve people of color. The name came from Victor Hugo Green, who published the first guide book.

For a road map of the times, we have the tragic murder of Emmett Till in 1955 (Mississippi) and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The so-called Korean War, the first war where US troops were not segregated, had ended in 1953.

Martin Luther King Jr. would be dead in 1968, but by 1962, he had already led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked both by a 15-year-old black student (Claudette Colvin in March) and Rosa Parks (1 December). The 385-day boycott culminated in a district court ruling (Browder v. Gayle) that ended racial segregation in all Montgomery, Alabama public buses.

In 1961, King was one of the non-violent protestors arrested in the Albany (Georgia) Movement that attacked segregation and advocated for voter’s rights.

King had yet to make his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), win his Nobel Peace Prize (1964) and march in Selma (1965).

Other historical notes would be that John Kennedy was president (1961) and would be assassinated (1963). He had already taken the wrong turn on communism in the 1961 failed attempt to overthrow Castro (Bay of Pigs Invasion). That actual phone call to his brother, Robert Kennedy, which is depicted in the movie was in 1963, a few months before JFK’s death.

On the musical landscape, the Beatles had yet to land in JFK Airport on their first trip to the US (1964). “I Want to Hold Your Hand” would not hit the American airwaves until December 1963. Besides appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles would give two appearances in Carnegie Hall, the very place where pianist Don Shirley lived.

According to Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony, his father was best friends with Shirley. The trip down South changed his father although the actual tour was one year and a half instead of the two months depicted in the movie. Shirley cooperated with Nick, giving interviews but asking that the story not be told until after he died (Shirley and Tony both died in 2013) and, according to a Time magazine interview with Nick, Shirley didn’t want his family consulted.

The family, including Shirley’s brother Maurice, have been openly angry about the movie and disputed details.

My brother never considered Tony to be his “friend”; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.

However, Deadline Hollywood purportedly acquired the tapes of the real Don Shirley and he does clearly say, “We never had an employer-employee relationship, you know we didn’t have time for that foolishness.” Shirley further adds, “I taught him English because he couldn’t talk” and that “I trusted him implicitly” because his life was in Tony Lip’s hands. Maurice is one of three brothers.

The road signs I’m reading are, we might be heading toward the realm of Rashomon.

The Movie

The movie begins in 1962 from the outside of the famous Copacabana and moves us swiftly inside where the featured singer is Bobby Rydell (Von Lewis), who is, by the way, still touring. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is working his magic. He is able to earn a bit of extra cash by absconding with Mr. Loscudo’s hat and then miraculously making it reappear. Tony doesn’t exactly lie but allows people to think what they want to think.

The Copa closes for renovations and leaves the bouncers without any employment. Tony needs to find a way to earn some cash, but also to keep out of the mobsters’ way. They think Tony might make a good addition to their membership. Tony gets an interview in Carnegie Hall with pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), thinking the doctor in his title means he’s a medical doctor instead of the intellectual PhD sort.

Earlier, black workmen in Tony’s Bronx apartment bring out his wife’s family who are there to protect her honor against the intrusion of African-Americans and Tony wants to throw out the glasses the two men used. His wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) is more sensible and as we know, Tony will soon become a better person in regards to African Americans.

Tony and Don will face prejudice of different levels when they take a hard left into the Deep South, but Don will  ask Tony to become more romantic and even ask, “What kind of brand-new fool are you?” Tony has opportunities, that his white privilege can afford him over others but it becomes clear that Don finds himself alienated from other African Americans due to his education and skills are a musician. Socially, he might not be able to find common ground, but, in this movie, music can bring people together on both sides to the race question, black and white.

When stopped in a sundown town (a town where African Americans must be indoors at night), Tony gets stopped and questioned by the police. Insulted by an officer he assaults him. During a brief stint in jail, Don asks Tony if “that little temper tantrum was it worth it” and admonishes him that “You never win with violence; Tony you only win when you maintain your dignity” because “dignity always prevails.” Don knows what he’s talking about because “I’ve had to endure that kind of talk my entire life you should be able to take it for one night.”

For Don and Tony, racism and prejudice is more than black and white because there are shades in between that are the result from divisions of class, education and even the ability to pass as white.

Variations on White

A few have taken quick side trips to “Driving Miss Daisy.” That could be about a white woman and her black driver, if you consider Jews to be white. “Driving Miss Daisy” is about Jews in the South of the first of three plays Alfred Uhry wrote  about Jews in Atlanta, all award winning, but only “Driving Miss Daisy” has become a movie.



Morris classified “Green Book,” as a movie of “fantastical racial contentment,” contrasting it with Spike Lee’s “voice of racial reality.” The “black version of these interracial relationships tends to head in the opposite direction,” citing Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” “Blindspotting,”  “If Beale Street Could Talk” and  “Black Panther.” They do not emphasize “the smoothness and joys of interracial friendship and certainly not through employment.”

Jessica Tandy is “white” and a “Jewish white widow from Atlanta” and Morris calls what passes between Daisy and Hoke “weirdly kinky: southern-etiquette S&M.” Morris’ piece champions Spike Lee while Ransome doesn’t only dislike “Green Book,” but he also dislikes Lee’s Oscar-nominated “BlacKkKlansman.”

It seems one rarely hears the acronym WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) these days and everything is collapsed into “white.” Miss Daisy is white before she is Jewish in 2018 and 2019. Contemplating this on Holocaust Memorial Day as I was reading the list of hopeful passengers on the St. Louis on Twitter, learning where they died (with a rare survivor), I wondered is there is a disconnect in our conversations about whiteness. These people were not white enough. They are certainly not white enough for some in Charlottesville (2017) when people were chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” nor in the time portrayed in Spike Lee’s 2018 “BlacKkKlansman,” nor when the MS St. Louis carried 900 Jewish refugees in 1939.

There has been a question of “Are Jews White?”

Green writes:

On the extreme right, Jews are seen as impure—a faux-white race that has tainted America. And on the extreme left, Jews are seen as part of a white-majority establishment that seeks to dominate people of color. Taken together, these attacks raise an interesting question: Are Jews white?

Green notes that legally most Jews have been considered “white” and that “the vast majority of American Jews—94 percent, according to Pew—describe themselves as white in surveys. But many Jews of color—black, Asian, and even Mizrahi Jews—might identify their race in more ambiguous terms.” Hate crimes against Jews has dropped from 80 to 50 percent. The question of whiteness is about how secure their claim to white privilege might be.

Gorenberg reminds us that “Even in America, it turns out, not all bigotry is about race, and anti-Semitism hasn’t faded away.” He concludes:

For anti-Semites, any economic or political achievements by Jews are proof of the thesis of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: The cabal is succeeding in its designs of domination; they are powerful; they are replacing us.

This doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism is the most virulent or widespread form of hatred in America—only that it’s real. It’s not tied to color. It puts Jews on the same side as others threatened by resurgent hatred, and by a president who is a willing shill for the haters.

Passing as white has an emotional toll, but it isn’t just blacks or African Americans who can pass as WASP. People also seem to accept that being “in the closet,” or hiding an aspect of one’s life can be a damaging burden, but that applies not just to people who are gay.

Husain addressed the question “Are Jews White” in legal terms because a recent ruling found that Jews were a protected race in the case of Joshua Bonadona in his lawsuit against Louisiana College. The ruling was troubling for some. The Anti-Defamation League stated “ADL is deeply offended by the perception of Jews as a race found in both allegations against the College and the plaintiff’s assertions in the lawsuit” and that the ruling was a “double-edged sword.”

Are Italians White?

The trade routes along the Mediterranean resulted in more than economic exchange; there were cultural exchanges, some reaching into the intimate realms of DNA. What is considered white in the US has changed. It once included Latinos (Perez v. Sharp), and West and Central Asians, under the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other Anti-Asian immigration acts, attempted to join the privilege party.

A Venice, CA (Los Angeles County) police officer, George Shishim, went to court and stated, “If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.” Shishim was Lebanese-Syrian Arab. He won his case and the right to US citizenship denied Chinese and Japanese nationals. It was a different story of Asian Indians (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind).

In “Green Book,” it becomes clear that not everyone considers Italians white. Italians are European, but they are also predominately Catholic and Mediterranean. Are Italians always considered white? Perhaps a better question is: Do they always have white privilege? Consider an Italian mathematician who was mistaken for an Arab. In the late 19th to mid-20th centuries there was a notion of a Mediterranean race. Historically, we know the trade routes known as the Silk Road linked the Far East with Africa and Europe. DNA mapping hints at the intimate details that link North Africa, Southern Europe and West Asia.

Husain also noted:

My study showed that their experiences reflect the common perception that Muslims are foreign and that white and black Americans are Christian or secular or, at the very least, not Muslim. Some white Muslims, for example, said they were often assumed to be non-Muslim because they did not “look Muslim” in the eyes of many Americans they encountered. In contrast, a lot of South Asians and Arabs are assumed to “look Muslim” no matter what they believe.

Husain’s conclusion was: “Religion has never been an afterthought in systemic racism, but a racial classifier, weaponized to maintain whiteness.”

For Frantzman, “it is particularly interesting, given the history of antisemitism, how Jews are now considered not only recipients of white privilege, due to their often passing as white, but are seen as emblematic of whiteness and a part of white supremacy.”

And as not all Jews are white-passing, not all Italians or people with Mediterranean heritage are white-passing. Some might be mistaken for Arab in the eyes of a white US citizen.

Passing and Colorism

In the US, one usually thinks of racial identity passing as African Americans passing for white but with the romanticism cast of Native Americans, some people have transformed their European otherness into an Native American: Sicilian-American Iron Eyes Cody, Eastern European Jewish American Jay Marks . That Mediterranean otherness is transformed into something more acceptable than possible Arabness.

More recently, we’ve had a high profile example of a white person passing for African American (e.g. Rachel Doleza).

Light-skinned African Americans passing for white has been the topic of novels and movies: “Pinky” (1949) and the musical “Show Boat” (1951) and “Imitation of Life” (1934 and 1959). There are a few movie stars who passed for white although they were not: Fredi Washington (1903-1994), Merle Oberon (1911-1979) and even Carol Channing (1921-2019).

Passing reportedly exacts a high emotional toll due to isolation, paranoia toward being outed, guilt and even self-hate. There are studies of the problems of homosexuals being in the closet. White passing is a topic in the Jewish community.

Behan writes, “We are a Middle Eastern ethnic people, and whether we are talking about 100 years ago or in 2018, no self-respecting Klansman or neo-Nazi has ever considered Jews white.” Behan calls it “goy-passing” and also describes the stereotype of Jews as being “geeky,  usually olive-skinned, curly-haired, ‘hook-nosed’ but also notes, “It is important to remember that anti-Semitism, as we know it today, is an Orientalist disease.” He adds that “the mold of the ‘hated Jew’ is very Middle Eastern” shaped.

Olive skin? Curly hair? Large nose? Could that also be applied to Southern Europeans from the Iberian peninsula to Greece and Italy and even the Baltics?

The rise to prominence of Gal Gadot, an Israeli Jew, as Wonder Woman seems to be the catalyst for Nathan’s essay. Nathan is “white passing” and understands that: “White privilege and anti-Semitism can occur simultaneously. Yes, that’s incredibly frustrating, but that’s also reality. One does not negate the other.” Nathan is a first-generation American Jew who grew up bilingual and feels that with the white passing privilege comes a responsibility: “Because when it really comes down to how I identify, the Jew in me realizes that acknowledging my privilege today enables me to take care of those around me, using what I’ve got.”

The white-passing Moses similarly feels this sense of responsibility and his seven ways are:

  • Be aware of your own privilege
  • Recognize there are hierarchies within the Jewish communities
  • Listening to the most marginalized
  • Use the white-passing privilege for good
  • Not hiding behind their Jewishness
  • Bringing the issues to the table, but not talking over others
  • Avoid confusing the past with the present

Moses recognizes that there are Jews of all races, but both Nathan and Moses recognize there is a sense of colorism and white-passing in the Jewish community, a community that rose out of West Asia.

White-passing is a topic of “Driving Miss Daisy.” One of the reasons for the increasing isolation Miss Daisy feels is the passing of her generation and the attempts of acculturation–Jews remaining Jewish, but celebrating Christmas–by her son’s generation. As Hoke is driving Daisy to her son’s house, she looks out at the Christmas lights and says, “Everybody’s wishing the Georgia Power Company a Merry Christmas.”

Hoke replies, “I bet Miss Florene got ’em all beat with the new house.”

Daisy says, “If I had a nose like Florene’s, I wouldn’t go around wishing anybody a Merry Christmas!”

Hoke laughs and replies, “I tell ya, I do enjoy a Christmas at their house.”

Daisy answers, ” Of course, you’re the only Christian in the place!”

The precarious position of Jews in Atlanta is an important theme of “Driving Miss Daisy” and the playwright’s Atlanta trilogy.

Frantzman recognizes like Husain that there are other “white” religions, writing,

There are many more Muslims who pass as white than there are Jews. If you don’t use the term “white Muslims” then you must not use the term “white Jews” and anyone who uses the term “white Jews” must be immediately confronted as to why no other religion gets this “white” definitional treatment.

There are other peculiarly US cultural problems for the people from the Middle East. In the American construct, North Africa becomes detached from the term African American. West Asian is detached fro Asia. Yet, as with the case of Latinos, that doesn’t mean North Africans and West Asians are considered white particularly during conflicts between the US and the Middle East–the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq or 9/11. As a result, there’s a move to separate certain so-called white people out into Middle Eastern and North African (MENA). That initiative failed for the 2020 Census, but the Arab American community does face issues and isn’t alway defined as “white” in the eyes of others in many ways similar to the Jewish conundrum.

Recognizing that Arab Americans, Persian Americans and other West and Central Asian Americans face prejudice particularly when anti-Muslim bias is heightened also is an important part of colorism and prejudice that face all people with a Mediterranean background. The Italian who someone thought was Arab is one example. An actor like Tony Award-winning Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub has played Italian-American (i.g. Antonio Scarpacci in “Wings” and in the movie “Big Night”) and Arab American  as well as Jewish American (Abe Weissman in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel“). Although he was the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe for Best Lead Actor in a TV Comedy or Musical (for “Monk”) that recognition went to Asian Indian-American Aziz Ansari in 2018 for “Master of None.”

“Green Book” like “Driving Miss Daisy” isn’t so much about white privilege as passing white. Tony Lip is encouraged by Don Shirley to smooth out his rough ways because he can pass as a WASP. Daisy is disgusted that her son and daughter-in-law are attempting to gain some measure of privilege by white-passing. Actresses like Jessica Tandy and Angela Lansbury who played Daisy were more than white-passing, they were white.

If one wants to recognize colorism and white-passing in the African American community, one should also consider how colorism and white-passing affects other communities. Seeing “Green Book” and “Driving Miss Daisy” in a binary racial paradigm is an error. Both movies address another community that has and, to a certain extent, still does experience prejudice.

Behan was writing in reply to an article about white Jews in Forward (“White Jews: Stop Calling Yourselves ‘White-Passing’” from 2 July 2018 by Nylah Burton), but whiteness is a hot topic in Forward.

In “Driving Miss Daisy,” what is an interesting counterpoint is the rise in prominence of the African American community which is not a minority in Atlanta any more (54 percent of the population in 2010 to 38 percent white but the black population was just 34 percent in 1940) while the Jewish community remains one (1 percent).

Like the Italians, MENA and the Jews, I belong to an ethnic group and a religion that is often left off of the national dialogue addressing racial and religious prejudice. In Atlanta and the Deep South, the Jewish community struggles to survive, but in the national dialogue its unique problems seem to be glossed over or even whitewashed by an assumed whiteness. Likewise, due to the DNA dispersal in the Mediterranean, the Italian American community faces some problems that other but not all people  with European ancestry face even though the prejudices are based on animosity toward Arabs, Persians or Muslims. The MENA population isn’t even counted in the US Census just as the Latino population also was once collapsed into the white category. Behan ended his essay writing: Before telling other people to ‘check their privilege,’ it’s usually a good idea to check your own first.” That’s a notion that doesn’t apply just to WASP in the US.




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