Can White Movie Racists Redeem Themselves?

We seem to prefer big-screen bigots unrepentant or dead at the end.

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The Green Book movie poster (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Movies tackle racism at their own risk. If they completely revolve around the Big R, they automatically open themselves up to a special brand of scrutiny. Just merely dabbling in the R word still can land it on the chopping block.

Three of the most despised race-themed movies, according to think pieces this century, have been three that made themselves even more vulnerable to contempt by winning Oscars: 2005’s Crash (three gongs, including Best Picture), 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (two gongs), and 2018’s Green Book (three gongs, including Best Picture). Let the hateration begin!

First, full disclosure: I enjoyed all three movies for different reasons. Do I think they were the best of their respective years? Nope. But they’ve become too-easy targets, obvious punching bags that are more reviled over time. As society’s “woke"-ness rises, the punches leveled at them grow harder and angrier.

Anyone who has experienced racism and Hollywood movies firsthand should be well-versed in the myriad problems of race movies, especially ones made by all- or mostly White creative teams. If they don’t adhere to the tired White savior narrative, they often take a subject as complex as racism and wrap it up in a neat narrative more worthy of an ABC Afterschool Special than A-list Oscar-bait treatment.

If we reject the idea that a racist leopard can change his spots, then what hope do we have in a post-George Floyd world?

For the three aforementioned films, a common complaint has been how easily racists are redeemed at the end, as if a few heartwarming gestures can solve systemic racism. In each film, a character begins the movie an unrepentant racist, recognizes the error of his racist ways over the course of the running time, and ends up changing for the better. The end.

Yes, it’s a sort of Cliff Notes version of racism. If we are to believe what Hollywood tells us, racism is a White man’s scourge and “Karens” are just wallpaper, standing by their bigoted men. It’s so often presented as being once upon a time, in an era far far away. Green Book, in particular, nails the expected Hollywood racism cliches and presents racism as White people are most comfortable dealing with it — as a history lesson.

If a movie treats racism as past tense, at a safe enough distance to not implicate contemporary White people, racists tend to begin and end like most movie villains, unrepentant and/or dead. That’s been the case with many of the biggest and most acclaimed hits dealing with White-on-Black racism in the last decade, from 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained to BlacKKKlansman to Harriet.

The racist who is redeemed by the finale, as they often are in movies set closer to home, in modern-ish times, faces greater critical scrutiny: How dare they act like racism can be resolved like that? While I agree there is a certain degree of realism in “once a racist, always a racist,” if we reject the idea that a racist leopard can change his spots, then what hope do we have in a post-George Floyd world?

If there’s no redemption for the racist, could Ghandi, the subject of the 1982 film that won the Best Picture Oscar, have gone from writing that Blacks in South Africa “are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals” and that Whites there should be “the predominating race” to inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. People change, even racists, and it sometimes happens more quickly than over the course of decades.

I see all three of the aforementioned whipping-boy race movies as being about more than White redemption, yet they all have been roundly booed for not making their racist antagonists work harder for absolution. Racism solved? Not so fast.

No, it’s not that easy. One man’s enlightenment is just one man’s enlightenment. It doesn’t necessarily change anything on a macro level. But do any of these movies pretend it does? Oscar nominee Matt Dillon’s racist cop leaves Traffic a somewhat better man than he enters it. In the end, though, it’s his partner, played by Ryan Phillippe, who spends much of his screen time being appalled by him but still ends up fatally shooting a Black hitchhiker (Larenz Tate) because he assumes the trinket the Black man is removing from his pocket must be a gun. It’s heavy-handed as hell, but 12 Years a Slave isn’t?

The main racists in Crash and Three Billboards don’t exactly take a straight path to the high road, especially Three Billboard’s Jason Dixon (Get it?), the character played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. He literally has to be set on fire before he starts to see the light. And even when he reaches a certain level of understanding with Oscar winner Frances McDormand’s grieving vigilante mother, there’s no evidence that he holds Blacks in higher regard than he does in his first scene.

I’ve always thought the movie would have been much more interesting if Viola Davis or Alfre Woodard had been cast as Mildred Hayes instead of McDormand. Then the racial tangent could have been the centerpiece, requiring more care and attention. But despite the name of Rockwell’s character, a play on Mason-Dixon Line from before the Civil War, the movie is primarily about a relationship between two White characters, one of whom happens to be a White supremacist.

Tony Lip in Green Book (played by Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen) doesn’t suffer as much as Jason Dixon for his redemption, and that’s actually OK. He portrays a more passive kind of racist. He’s one who will listen to Black music, work for a Black employer, and probably would refuse an invitation to a Ku Klux Klan meeting, but he’ll still throw away a perfectly fine water glass because a Black man just drank from it.

I don’t know that he completely changes his attitude about Blacks at the end of the movie, but he changes his attitude about his Black boss, the undersung jazz virtuoso Don Shirley (played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali). As the trajectory of their friendship plays out onscreen, I totally buy the thaw.

The fried chicken scene is silly stuff, but as a gay Black man who often has been deemed not Black enough by both Black and White people, and as a Black man who never eats fried chicken without a fork, I don’t find the scene particularly unrealistic, whether or not it actually happened (and it wouldn’t be the first biopic to invent a scene or several).

Some argue that Green Book’s presentation of racism in the 1960s South isn’t horrific enough. Well, certainly for some, it was much worse, but the movie makes its Jim Crow point. If you want torture porn from your race movie, there’s always 12 Years a Slave. Personally, I’m good.

Green Book would have been a better movie if it had been told from Don Shirley’s point of view. It probably would have offered a more brutal portrait of racism, which is always going to be worse viewed from where a Black man is standing. But then, it’s based on a book written by the son of the White main character, so its White-centric POV actually makes sense. What was The Help’s excuse? Or La La Land’s?

Oh, La La Land, a movie in which Ryan Gosling whitesplains jazz to John Legend. The only reason the 2016 musical is not as reviled today as Green Book is because it was lucky enough not to win the Best Picture Oscar over Moonlight.

Perhaps if last year’s surprisingly well-received Queen & Slim had been nominated for even one Oscar, the same people who have picked apart Crash, Three Billboards, and Green Book would have turned their unforgiving gazes upon it and seen how problematic it is. Its relatively whopping 82 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating doesn’t reflect its implausibilities (Queen on the run, looking like a glamorous supermodel) and its emphasis on style over substance. And let’s not forget the two-dimensional side characters: a racist moustache-twirling White cop (who — SPOILER ALERT! — naturally ends up dead), celebrity-obsessed Black simpletons who regard the titular outlaws as heroes because they’re Black, and— SPOILER ALERT! — a Black mercenary who double-crosses them for a cash reward.

I’ll take easy racist redemption over a mash-up of scenes of two beautiful Black people making love and scenes of a beautiful Black boy shooting to kill. Queen & Slim is as subtle as a Kanye West video, but I suspect missing out on Oscar love and its Black behind-the-scenes guiding talent, which includes director Melina Matsoukas and screenplay writer Lena Waithe, saved it from the thrashing heap.

I wish the blogosphere would start picking more challenging targets, like To Kill a Mockingbird. In the overrated 1962 classic, what a White lawyer endures to defend a wrongfully accused Black man somehow makes him more noble than the Black people of the time who had to go through much worse simply for existing.

In the end, it’s a matter of personal taste, but I wish the blogosphere would start picking more challenging targets, like To Kill a Mockingbird. In the overrated 1962 classic, what a White lawyer endures to defend a wrongfully accused Black man somehow makes him more noble than the Black people of the time who had to go through much worse simply for existing. No wonder it’s been so beloved by White audiences for decades.

If the Oscar winner were made today and premiering on Netflix in the next few months to qualify for next year’s Oscars, Black critics and some wide-awoke White ones might actually see it for the White hero-worship hokum it is. It’s better than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was five years later, but just because it’s based on a beloved book doesn’t place it above reproach. Gone with the Wind is based on a beloved book, too.

Fortunately, there have been enough complex modern movie takes on racial themes in recent times — Fruitvale Station in 2013, Moonlight in 2016, If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018, and Luce, Clemency, Waves, Just Mercy, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco last year — to somewhat offset the shaky stuff. As modern dramatic films led by Black characters, they lack the White saviors and racist redemption arcs that tend to lure White audiences and capture Oscar attention. (The uncompromising Beale Street, shockingly, received two nominations and one win.)

Crash, Three Billboards, and Green Book played the game and scored at the box-office and at the Oscars, which cost them the respect that To Kill a Mockingbird, which pretty much invented the game, has always commanded. It’s a shame to continue using their Oscar wins as justification to keep treating them like the worst things ever to happen to Black people in movies. As long as the To Kill a Mockingbird line “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing” still exists in the world, they’ll always have tough competition.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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