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Green Book and Driving While Black: How Black Mobility has Changed in the Past Century

These two films examine the state of black mobility throughout the years. How has it changed in the last century?

Working on Driving While Black has brought more awareness to us as artists of the struggles that Black America has endured throughout the years in the journey to freedom of mobility.

Given the bloody, strife-ridden history of Black Mobility, one movie that tackles this subject in recent times is Green Book (2018), starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahersha Ali as the two main protagonists, often at odds with each other.

The movie highlights Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book. To quote one of the lead characters in the first act of the winning flick, the titular book is for “traveling while black.”

Set in the early 1960s’, the full feature immediately paints the subsistence of America’s racial prejudices. With the narrative circling African-American concert pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, and Caucasian working-class bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, the story progresses into a series of events that cultivate the bond of both leads while weathering danger and racism in an era of partitioning.



The objective was to protect

Arguably a holy grail for the African Americans between the 1930s to the 1960s, the Green Book was a critical guide during its years. Listing restaurants, motels, and establishments of all kinds, its primary objective was to help protect Black Americans from racial brutality while traveling.

It covered states where Jim Crow laws—laws that aggressively supported racial segregation in the southern USA—were enforced. Furthermore, the racial complexities of car ownership in the early 90s’ were exponentially inhumane.



The bad, the ugly, and the terrible

Although it previews only a slice of the traumatic realities of being black, Green Book is a riveting tale that tackles the racial injustices of early America.

In the third act of the movie, bouncer-turned-driver Tony was questioned and mocked several times both by his friends and the authorities why he was working for a black man.

In one particular scene, the leads were arrested for driving late at night, with one officer implying that African Americans weren’t allowed to travel after the sun sets.

Arguably one of the more nerve-wracking plot points in the story was when Shirley, the main virtuoso of his show, wasn’t even allowed to dine where the guests were eating.

While the film doesn’t carry the looming poignance of such a dark era, it also doesn’t shy away from confronting the sciences of social structures. In a captivating short monologue by actor Viggo Mortensen, his character narrates the difficulties of being a blue collar worker, mentioning, even, how he felt that he was “more black” than the pianist he works for.

As if suggesting that his inherent white privilege wasn’t a contributor of a comfortable life, he hinted that his boss still had it better. His imposing articulation of these thoughts are then followed by a striking admission of predisposed shame and discomposure by Mahershala Ali who played Don Shirley.

If anything, this Golden Globes gem of a reel is a perfect opportunity for people to dissect how varied the factors of race and our individual social stances are.


Room For Conversations

The movie does a tremendous job in unearthing even more conversations about what it means to be American. Similar to the approach most period films go for, Green Book repurposes the past to develop new content for the modern audience.

Despite the progress societies have striven to work toward, driving while black still poses unpalatable consequences that aren’t meant to be experienced in the first place.

Arguably so, critics are saying that the film sweetens the horrific perturbations black citizens have had to live through in the past, with some even indicating that the movie unsubtly advocates for the white saviour complex.

Regardless of what people are saying, Green Book is a telling tale, and the only way forward is to keep discussions alive.


Driving While Black in the current decade


As tackled in the documentary “Driving While Black”, a lot has changed over the years. Black representation in society, government and media has certainly improved. Though the scars and deeply ingrained ideologies stemming from the bloody, hate-filled history of slavery and emancipation still manifest in our current times.

With the recent Black Lives Matter movements, continuing instances of police brutality against our African-American brothers and sisters on the road, and the continuing systemic injustice that they still face; the path to a more tolerant, just America is still long and arduous.

Mobility comes hand in hand with freedom. An oppressive society is a society that controls and dictates how you move from point A to point B. Our history has proven this hypothesis from time and time again. But to quote Gretchen Sorin, the author of the book and one of the main writers of the documentary “Driving While Black”: “Looking back often provides a way to move forward”. To pave the way for a better tomorrow, we should never forget the lessons, scars, and wounds that we bring with us to the future.

Watch the full documentary on PBS, also available on DVD, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.


The use of screenshots coming from the film Green Book (2018) is protected under Fair Use. Our article only seeks to raise awareness on the issues tackled by the film.


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