I struggle with language. The correct forms of address. The other day, for instance, I was chided over using ‘blackboard’ and not ‘chalkboard’. I suppose there’s now a derivative for ‘white board’ though it wasn’t mentioned. But I try to be sensitive to other’s, erm, sensitivities as, and let’s face it, it costs me nothing to do so. I don’t judge people for what are usually innocent slips either, because we live in a changing world, with things like transgender issues and the modes of address to cater for the variety of gender descriptions seemingly increasing overnight (I realise in writing this I probably offend without meaning to and therein lies the rub).
But it should be the same in film, where there is a clear historical context. Same in books. If you are dealing with say, race issues in the US circa 1962 then certain language which would be commonplace then, would be unacceptable today. Do you use it? How brave are you Mr Director, Mr Screenwriter?
In the Green Book the answer is, probably 7 out of 10. Some of the language would, if used today, generate sharp intakes of breath. And yet, and yet. It’s that dammed ‘N’ word, isn’t it? Purloined by rap artists, especially and maybe exclusively if they are Black (I’m not a fan of rap so can’t really comment on the sweep of the genre), it is shied away from in nearly all pictures. Which, if you set the film today, while probably creating a faux reality, is understandable.
But to me it is a failing in a historical film. In the Green Book they bit the bullet on some but not that word. It was used only once and then by the leading Black actor to describe his plight as falling between two ‘peoples’. It was an angry well-pitched scene. It was used for, maybe a little shock value. It wasn’t casual. As it would have been.
Of course, I’m old enough to know of a time when it was in fairly common usage. When it would have been the slang epithet of choice in the mouths of ‘white folk’. Not here. Not once.
And once you start wondering what they are avoiding, what they are leaving out, you begin to think they are Disneyfying the subject matter, taking out the stuff we ‘children’ shouldn’t see and hear. They go to so much trouble with the clothes, the internal and external settings, the cars, the food, the dialogue, the social mores. The continuity people must pour over pictures and books and magazines, determined to get everything historically accurate. Don’t they?
And that makes this linguistic censorship such a shame because this is a fascinating tale of one battle in the fight for the racial soul of America. In summary, based on a true story, a famous and highly talented African-American concert pianist determined to tour venues across the southern states, putting up with all kinds of slights and discrimination and casual violence, in the company of his white, Italian-heritage driver. The driver, played with a delightful panache by Viggo Mortensen and the musician played with wry sophistication by Mahershala Ali bond over the eight week tour, both learning some home truths and life lessons from the other. It’s witty, outrageous, oddly terrifying and occasionally uplifting.
I read one review that called it clichéed. That’s pretty harsh; any story that dwells on this tumultuous period of American domestic history, between Rosa Parkes and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, say, is following a pretty well-trodden path so the tropes are well known and understood. This isn’t really about that, though. It’s about American class when overlaid with racial politics and that makes it more interesting. It’s about fish out of water, about learning to swim in different seas that cut across the colour lines of the time.
So I will forgive its sanitisation of language. For heavens sake, if you want to cut anything out to ensure you aren’t giving succour to the unacceptable, then get rid of all that smoking; it must be killing the actors. It’s a very enjoyable and watchable film, and I’d happily go again. Just grow a pair, Hollywood, that’s all I ask.
PS: I was reading an article in the paper, while thinking about this film and this review, discussing the upcoming golf season (stay with me people). It referenced the first Major of the year at Augusta National golf course in Georgia. Augusta, a private members club, admitted its first African-American member in 1990, showing how slowly the social cogs of any society take to grind their way to change. Its first woman member, of whatever colour, race or ethnicity was admitted when? 2012. There are still male-only clubs in this country though none are capable of hosting the British Open (as if that is really the main point). So let’s not get hung up on some word that history tells us was in common use back then; let’s focus on the reason these sorts of films matter: to hold a light up to us today and ask ‘how far have those cogs really turned?’