What Green Book Got Wrong About Black Music - Rami Stucky
Episode 62nd March 2023 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:15:21

Share Episode

Shownotes

In this week's episode, we'll hear from Rami Stucky as he dives into problematic representation of Black music in the 2018 Oscar winning film Green Book.

This episode was produced by Jennifer Beavers.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season02/.

Transcripts

SMT:

[SMT-Pod opening theme music playing] Welcome to SMT-Pod! The premier audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this week's episode, we'll hear from Rami Stucky as he dives into problematic representation of Black music in the 2018 Oscar winning film Green Book.

Rami:

In this episode, we are going to talk about a film that stereotypes how Black musicians play Black music. It’s a film that suggests that knowledge about the Western musical canon requires training and practice, whereas playing the jazz and blues is essential and innate to Black musicians. And it’s a film that perpetuates misunderstandings about the work ethic of Black musicians performing Black music that have existed throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Rami:

And that film is Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly and released in 2018. The title Green Book refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for Black motorists that was created by Victor Hugo Green, a Black postal worker and travel writer from Harlem. Over the course of its lifespan, from 1936 to 1966, The Negro Motorist Green Book listed businesses African Americans could patron as they travelled throughout the United States in an era of segregation, Jim Crow, and state-sanctioned violent racism. The film is a biopic based on the true story of Don Shirley, an African American pianist, as he relies on the Green Book to tour through the Deep South in 1962 with Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, his Italian American driver.

Rami:

More specifically, the film focuses on the relationship between Don and Tony as well as Tony’s reformed racism. At the beginning of the film, we see Tony, in his working-class house in the Bronx, throw out perfectly good glassware after his wife lets Black repairmen drink from them. But Tony’s looking for work, having recently been laid off, and comes across Don, who is looking for a driver. Tony manages to convince Don of his work ethic and secures employment. The duo tour the South together and develop an amicable rapport. At the end of the film, Tony scolds his friends and family after they refer to Don by a derogatory slur, much to the relief, surprise, and approval of his wife. At its core, Green Book tells the story of a bigot’s transformation.

Rami:

There are many problems with this film, most having to do with Tony’s characterization and the feel-good nature of the film. Melanie McFarland, writing for Salon, argues that Green Book depicts a white savior narrative in film. Likewise, Wesley Morris, at the New York Times, critiques the film’s promotion of what he perceives to be a racial reconciliation fantasy. Then there are the historical inaccuracies.

Rami:

Jüri Täht, the real life cellist in Don’s trio who traveled with Don and Tony in 1962, was never contacted about the making of the movie. Although he is Estonian, the film went too far with their creative liberties and portrayed him as a Russian named Olag instead, much to Juri’s disappointment. Shirley’s family also disagreed with some of the biographical liberties that the filmmakers took. They do not believe that Don and Tony were close friends, as the end of the film suggests they were. Shirley never had a teal blue Cadillac, but instead drove around in a black limousine. Other discrepancies between Don’s real life and his portrayal in the film abound. As an historical biopic that made an attempt to portray the brutal realities of a Black man touring the Deep South in 1962, the film simply fell short.

Rami:

The film was also lacking in another area that I want to focus on in this episode. While the screenwriters did an excellent job explaining how Don mastered the repertoire of the Western canon, it did not explain how Don learned to play jazz and blues. In fact, the film went to great lengths to demonstrate that Don does not – or cannot – connect with the Black community that he encounters on his travels throughout the South. Then, all of a sudden, he seemingly does. In one climactic scene at the end of the film, Don goes to the Orange Bird, a bar serving Birmingham, Alabama’s black working-class community.

Rami:

He talks to the bartender who, after learning that Don is a pianist, encourages him to play on their piano. Don goes up, performs Chopin’s Etude op. 25 no. 11 in A minor, and receives a warm and raucous round of applause from the audience. Then the house band comes on stage, a bass player plays a riff, and the whole band, Don included, breaks out into a blues. Let’s have a listen of what it sounds like.

Music:

[Blues James]

Rami:

What I take issue within this scene is that nothing in the entire movie has convinced me that Don can go on stage and hold his own playing instrumental rhythm and blues, or jump blues, or whatever genre you want to call this type of music. Not only could he keep up, but he played a compelling blues solo, which captivated the audience by seemingly outshining the other musicians on the bandstand. This simply seems unlikely. I want to be clear; I am not making a claim about the attributes of the real-life Don Shirley. Instead, the analysis that follows is exclusively confined to what happens within the movie. And what happens within the film takes for granted the practice and skill required to play Black music.

Rami:

Take how the filmmakers set up Don’s performance of Chopin as a point of comparison. It took practice and dedication. During an important conversation with Tony in a hotel lobby, Don explains that he studied intensely – first with his mother as a child touring around the Florida panhandle, then later at conservatory in Leningrad where he trained to play Brahms, Liszt, Beethoven, and Chopin. What the audience learns at the hotel lobby helps retroactively explain scenes that occurred previously. Take this scene. Soon after Don, Tony, Oleg, and George, Don’s bassist, embark for the Deep South, the audience hears Don speak with Olag in Russian. How does Don know Russian? Is it an example of his autodidactic genius that the screenwriters just explain away? Not at all! As the hotel scene makes us understand, it is the result of years of schooling in Russia.

Rami:

But the screenwriters do not just spotlight Don’s studious pursuit of the Western canon. In fact, so much of the action as Don and Tony drive through the United States relies on Don teaching Tony how to write, how to speak eloquently, and how to behave with proper etiquette. This scene, for example, depicts Don as an emphatic endorser and propagator of regimented training and practice.

Audio:

[Don’t Be Lazy]

Rami:

The screenwriters’ emphasis on practice is a beautiful theme that courses throughout the film, and we see Don’s dedication to the Western canon constantly. His performance of Chopin is a logical culmination of the dialogue and plot.

Rami:

Contrast this with how the filmmakers present Don’s performance at the jam session, which they don’t set up at all. Throughout the film, the filmmakers depict Don as someone who is not familiar with, or does not care for, Black r&b, gospel, or soul music. In scene after scene, Tony answers Don’s questions about what’s playing on the radio. Although it seems like over the course of the tour, Don becomes more interested in Aretha Franklin, Chubby Checker, and Sam Cooke, two scenes clearly state that Don is not particularly taken by their music. He makes his feelings explicit in this car scene.

Audio:

[Same Type of Food]

Music:

And once again this hotel lobby scene is revealing. In this scene, Don tells Tony that all heever wanted to be was the next Arthur Rubenstein: the next renowned classical pianist. However, his record label urged him to pursue a career in pop music, and that’s what he did. The music in the film consists of Don playing a unique mixture classical and jazz and blues idioms. This following example kind of sounds like Sergei Rachmaninoff and George Shearing got together to recompose a minor version of Lullaby of Birdland, a famous jazz standard.

Music:

[Lullaby of Birdland]

Rami:

This is a pretty hip, swinging line.

Music:

[Swinging Line]

Rami:

And I really dig this blues lick that’s worthy of a jam session at the Orange Bird.

Music:

[Blues Lick]

Rami:

But as Don’s statements confirm, he didn’t really want to play this type of music. These jazz and blues idioms were thrust upon him. They weren’t his idea to include. His comments and general ambivalence towards Black music make it seem like he instead learned how to play these licks at some sort of evening school professional development course. Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G contains jazzy sections, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the French composer could improvise with Louis Armstrong. Similarly, how Don then translates his occasional blues licks into an improvisatory situation like at the Orange Bird is unclear. After Don hears Little Richard for the first time, Tony asks Don whether he could play something that sounds like that. Don responds by saying.

Audio:

[Fairly Complicated]

Rami:

And that’s exactly the point. The screenwriters got it right here. But they did not follow up on this train of thought. Chopin’s complicated, but naturally requires years of training at a place like the Leningrad Conservatory. Little Richard is also complicated. But who needs to practice Little Richard’s music? Don can apparently just show up and play something similar.

Rami:

In conjunction with Don’s disinterest in Black popular music is Don’s inability to connect with the members of the Black community he comes across on his tour. At a segregated Blacks-only hotel, Don drinks by himself while other guests play horseshoes and dice and socialize. In many instances, his isolation is the result of his elevated socioeconomic status. The music industry has been good to Don, good enough to hire a chauffeur, and this wealth contrasts starkly with those he encounters in the Deep South.

Rami:

In one scene, Don and Tony’s Cadillac breaks down. While Tony diagnoses the problem, Don, in his suit and ascot tie, steps out of the car and looks out into a nearby field where he sees destitute sharecroppers, hunched over, sweaty, and ragged. The juxtaposition between them could not have been starker. But then, at the Orange Bird, Don suddenly learns how to relate and fit in. It just doesn’t seem likely.

Rami:

To be fair, Green Book is mostly concerned with highlighting Don’s classical prowess, not his jazz and blues chops. This is a film about a classical pianist first and foremost. And you could forgive the screenwriters for glossing over the details about how he learned to improvise in a blues and jazz idiom. Furthermore, what does it matter that Green Book portrays Black musicians playing Black music this way? It’s just one film, and if audiences want to see the training and deliberation required to perform Black music, they can watch a film like George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which takes place entirely in a recording studio.

Rami:

However, by including the Orange Bird scene, Green Book joins an unfortunate lineage and falls victim to a kind of thinking that has dominated understandings of Black music, particularly jazz, throughout the twentieth century. Ever since the formation of jazz, audiences and critics alike suggested that the Black practitioners of jazz were guided by emotion. In contrast, the Western musical tradition was cultivated by the intellect of a composer.

Rami:

Critics such as Hugues Panassié and Barry Ulanov continued this line of thinking and wrote about artists like Louis Armstrong in way that constructed a primitivist myth about Black musicians and music, mentioning how they created their music by channeling their racial essence and tapping into the vitality of their “primitive” culture. Contrast this with how they wrote about white musicians like Dave Brubeck who relied on training and work ethic that emanated from the cerebrum to perform jazz.

Rami:

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film, Whiplash, shows this characterization in action. The film follows Andrew Neiman, a white drummer at music school, and his attempt to occupy the first chair seat in the big band. In one scene, he practices jazz drumming so seriously and so intensely that his hands start to bleed. It’s an outrageous scene and not an accurate portrayal of what conservatory life is like for jazz musicians. However, Chazelle shows that, for a white musician, playing Black music takes some work. It takes some time in the practice room to play jazz with others. But for Don? Apparently, he was just born that way,

Rami:

Black musicians have often refuted these claims about being naturally gifted at jazz, the blues, improvisation, or other Black music. Miles Davis, for instance, went to great lengths to argue that the sweat that emanated from his body was an example of his intellectual exertion, not some sort of primal bodily strain. Unfortunately, Green Book’s filmmakers do not make a similar argument on Don’s behalf. It continues to perpetuate this primitivist myth that has dominated understandings of Black and white music and Black and white musicians.

Rami:

The film suggests that Black music is complicated. But for a Black musician, it should be easy enough to perform. No need to practice. In contrast, the mastery of Western Classical Music does require practice. Perhaps without meaning to, the filmmakers place the mind-body dualism, articulated by René Descartes in the seventeenth century, front and center in Green Book. Some styles of music require tapping into the mind. Others require tapping into the body. It’s an argument that Black musicians like Miles Davis tried to complicate. However, as its prominence in Green Book suggests, this thinking still circulates prominently in twenty-first century American life.

Rami:

[Spoken over SMT-Pod closing music]

I would like to thank Jennifer Beavers, Katrina Roush, Jennifer Weaver, and the rest of the SMT Podcast committee for believing in this project. A special thanks to Richard Desinord for his patience and advice during the scripting process as well as Nicole Rustin for her work as a peer reviewer. She is an immense friend and wonderful colleague.

SMT:

[Spoken over SMT-Pod closing music]

Visit our website smt-pod.org for supplemental materials related to this episode and to learn how to submit an episode proposal. Join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Thanks for listening!

Follow

Links

Chapters