The Language Of Cliches #filmreview #greenbook

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?’

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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41 Responses to The Language Of Cliches #filmreview #greenbook

  1. Susan Scott says:

    Thank you – it’s on my to be seen movie. Pity that whitewashing re language comes into play.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not sure. I haven’t seen the film but your description sounds as if they might have got it right – once for shock value is not enough to offend or make it seem almost acceptable. I don’t think we can ever reproduce the past as it really was: some things are best left there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I won’t argue about shock value (not much) but it would have made the point so much more tellingly if it was put into the mouth of Mortensen. His character would have used it without a thought back then but a hero using that would have a great impact now and stop me thinking ‘another feeble minded director’.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. tidalscribe says:

    Good points, it’s a minefield out there keeping track of what we are allowed to say. My daughter-in-law said she walks away if someone calls her Love! It would not occur to me to be offended – I can think of far worse things chaps might call a girl!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I find it endlessly fascinating. When my daughter was about 10 in the early noughties her generation started using ‘gay’ to mean rather pathetic. That caused a stir. But then ‘gay’ itself had been repurposed before so the flurry of tabloid headlines died away. But it really offended some who’d fought hard to eradicate and change attitudes. Being a white heterosexual educated reasonably affluent male from the ultimate in exploitative colonial powers there are few words you can use to offend me. I’ve never been the underdog, the exploited, the discriminated one in the eyes of society. But I can empathise with those who find labels, given out by oppressors, however innocently, I try to acknowledge that in my use of language.

      Like

  4. Blackboard? You have to be joking. That person needs to get a life.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. willowdot21 says:

    Not far enough Geoff , not far enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. trifflepudling says:

    It’s a board, it’s black, so??
    When we were younger, people used to say coloured then, when I was a teen, Black (we were Honkies). Now it’s persons of colour. I bet that was dreamed up by a honkie. I honestly never noticed what ‘colour’ anyone was. It was just a characteristic.
    Shame the film didn’t face up to its responsibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Yep quite. In my head I go back to Love Thy Neighbour in the 70s and the many insults thrown across that garden fence. I wonder if the Beeb or whoever made it wiped the tapes.

      Like

      • trifflepudling says:

        Looked at these comments before I went to bed and was horrified it was a bit strong. It’s just, what is the difference between coloured and of colour? They are both implying ‘something other than white’ and all that indicates. Anyway… Growing up in central London, every nationality seemed to be represented.
        I never watched Love thy Neighbour but parents did watch Alf Garnett – I remember that mostly for the differing political views they had.
        Crazy in Alabama is a excellent book, ruined by Melanie Griffith. The more important half of the book is Peejoe’s story, growing up during the Civil Rights movement. The denouement still shocks (in a thoughtful way) me about 20 years after reading. I recommend.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Thanks I’ll check it out

        Like

  7. Well said, Geoff!! I haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t. I get inflamed at all injustices in the world and have no heart for it. My thing to deal with. This is why history is never totally true. We are afraid to say the real words because everyone takes issue with everything. Like blackboard! How ridiculous to pick on that. I’ve lived in so many parts of this country and the world that I’ve learned to adapt my language to where I am but it’s not my voice I’m using then. When in Rome you must deal with the Roman butcher. Thank you for stating succinctly what is going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m with you, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. JT Twissel says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. When I was a kid we would use the phrase “don’t have a spaz attack” which of course one would never say these days. But that’s how we talked. Another: “that’s a retarded idea.” Not proud of it but that’s the way it was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I was talking about this in the context of the homophobic slurs that we used to hear and sadly use. Awful though no one word has quite come to represent that ill like this one does. And sexist language? Sadly despite a lot being offensive none of it is as vilified as either racist or homophobic language. Yet. These battles take years to change attitudes.

      Like

  10. Mary Smith says:

    I’ve got this one on my list to see. I take your point the N word would have been used more casually that it seems to have been in the film but I’m still looking forward to seeing it.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. AJ.Dixon says:

    That’s given me some food for thought. It’s a shame when a film with a genuine, direct message shies away from historically accurate terms when some easy-watching, obvious action flicks throw them about like confetti.
    Might still give it a watch, I’m intrigued.
    Also, never thought you’d not be a fan of rap, Geoff! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  12. arlingwoman says:

    I haven’t seen this. Afraid it might be Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, but I’ve heard lovely things about the acting.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Well said/written sir! I agree totally on this sanitisation of history – and Hollywood very often leads the way. Having said that I might find it very challenging to sit through a film that represented America accurately, but I’d come out fully informed and that is vitally important these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is also true with the commonplace sexist and homophobic language of the mid to late 20’th Century. Most people didn’t say ‘gay’ or ‘LGBTQ’ ‘Deviants’ were summed up in one or two harsh words. A big part of the struggle against oppression is the struggle to change the way we think about each other which is reflected in the way we speak.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I agree totally that

      Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I agree totally that changing attitudes via language is a big part of the struggle and that certain words are representative of that so become really offensive. I’d never dream of using it but did I As a child growing up not understanding how for some it hurt?. I imagine so. It and as you say homophobic and sexist slurs. But in an adult film about that time, especially one based on fact, I think it lacks integrity not to represent things as they were. After all the word is used once, only by the main Black actor. I don’t want the film smeared with jarring offensive language but to censor it completely feels like a failure

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I didn’t know that word was in common usage in the past. Ironically, they avoid using it because someone nowadays might get offended -but that word has absolutely no meaning for me, a person who has grown up without it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It was always an insult but one of many. It seems to have become the representative insult and so the ultimate unusable. There’s a very famous British wartime film made in the 1950s, the Dambusters about a bombing raid on the Ruhr dams. The hero and lead pilot, Guy Gibson has a much beloved black Labrador who is shown pining at the end of the film for his never to return master. The dog’s name? Yep. Used ironically no doubt? As a result the film gets less airtime than it might, it is often accompanied by a warning at the outset and there was I seem to recall a debate about reducing a different and historically inaccurate name.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess some words never recover from connotation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Oh in 50 years it will have been repurposed. This one will take longer because of what it’s held to represent but I don’t doubt we will hear it again. The c word was common in the 18th century. The Victorians made it shocking. It is slowly recovering its place but to our ears still it is offensive. The Favourite uses it cleverly, not to overdo it but to show how it would have been. I doubt the clip shown at the Oscars will have it in!

        Liked by 1 person

      • You think so, even with all the information we retain these days?

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Yep. Give it a bit of distance, Oprah as Prez and it’ll be purloined by teenagers to mean someone who works too hard … or some such.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Losing the Plot says:

    Hear hear! 👏

    Liked by 1 person

  17. LucciaGray says:

    It’s on my to watch list. Interesting reflections in the topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Elizabeth says:

    For me the most telling scene in the movie was the man throwing away the glass that the pianist had used. That spoke of the deep racism more than any word could have.

    Liked by 1 person

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