This is a buddy movie and a road movie based on an odd coupling of two different cultures. It draws its authenticity from a friendship between a classical pianist and his chauffer, and one of the writers, Nick Vallelonga, witnessed it. The former is black and the latter is white. The year is 1962. John F Kennedy is newly elected, regarded as a progressive and a liberal. Voters proved that even a Roman Catholic can become President. But while JFK can schmooze with the Rat Pack, and advocate for liberal causes, he would never think of inviting Sammy Davis Junior to the Whitehouse, in the same way he could his buddy Frank Sinatra. Even though the latter had, alleged, Mafia connections.
I’m rambling on here. Trying to illustrate how deadly and dangerous the South was, and it didn’t need to be that Deep, for Dr Shirley (Mahershala Ali), the classical pianist. On the playlist of Southern Caucasus of Senators was hating Communists and, as Senator Old reminded them keeping ‘uppity nigras down’ (quoted in Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson). Senator Jim Eastland also suggested ‘[he] could be standing right in the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say the niggers caused it, helped by the Communists’.
Lyndon B. Johnson despite bringing a draft of civil right bills and pushing them through the Senate wasn’t much of a believer in equality. He’d a black driver, and the future President made sure he knew his place. Having a black driver was acceptable. But, of course, they couldn’t stay in the same place, they couldn’t use the same toilet, or drink water from the same faucet, don’t even think about them drinking in the same bar.
The Green Book in the title refers to the Negro Motorists Green Book (the cover was green). A roadmap, literally a lifeline, listing where black and coloured could stop off for something to eat or drink and stay overnight, without being whipped, or lynched, or jailed on trumped up charges. Out of the way spots where they could relax.
That’s the set-up. First up is showing ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) at work as a bouncer in the Bronx. He’s handy with his fists and gives a petty gangster a beating and flings him out of the Copacabana nightclub and into the street.
‘You don’t know who I am?’ the petty gangster bawls.
Tony shrugs. He’s old school, in with the bricks. He knows all the old Dons that run the numbers and run large parts of street life. He doesn’t take shit. But the Copacabana is closing down and he’s looking for another job.
Black workmen are doing carpentry work in his kitchen and all his Italian relatives are watching a ball game in the living room. They explain (in Italian) that it wouldn’t be right leaving his wife alone with these ‘eggplants’. His wife gives them a glass of lemonade before they leave. Tony picks up the glasses the workmen have used and puts them in the trash.
Tony’s a racist. But he’s also a slob. He wins fifty bucks beating another guy in a contest to see who can eat the most hotdogs. The other guy ate twenty-three. And his wife berates him for losing that amount of money, but then he admits he ate twenty-six and pulls out the note. He’s hitting the high notes.
When he goes to see Dr Shirley he finds out he’s not a real doctor. But he’s impressed by where he stays. Above Carnegie Hall, it’s something like a castle. And Dr Shirley has a manservant and sits on a throne. As well as playing the piano, Dr Shirley speaks several languages, fluently. In other words, he’s upper-class and refined. He’s got connections so far above the petty Dons of Bronx street life that makes small town dictator’s heads spin. When they are jailed Dr Shirley springs them by using his one phone call to phone JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States.
I’m not sure this happened in real life, but it makes for a dramatic scene, and sense of different worlds. When rubbing chalk against cheese something is sure to give. The period detail is great. And the most important thing of all, this movie is great fun.
At over a thousand pages Robert A.Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is a hefty wedge of American history. We know power corrupts, but Caro also argues ‘power reveals’. We’re aware of that iconic picture of Jackie Kennedy standing with the former Vice President of the United States and now President, Lyndon Johnson. Power reveals.
(But that was later, volume 4, the new Senator John F. Kennedy only makes a brief appearance, in volume 3, his father Joe Kennedy makes the offer to finance a campaign to elect his son, with Johnson, running as Vice President, much like Richard Nixon had run as Vice President for Dwight D. Eisenhower. The thirty-third and thirty-fourth Presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower that followed the Second World War and the Korean War and post-war boom. These were giants of men, especially in relation to the moron’s moron, the 45th and current President of the United States.)
Lady Bird Johnson described her husband’s twelve years in Senate office as the happiest days of their life and that includes his stint as President. A Senator hired by oil and gas interests in the South who bought a ticket with his name on it. The Brown brothers, whose company name was Brown & Root, for example, were willing to spend as much as it took to make Johnson a Congressman, a Senator and a President. Quid pro quo. They expected government contracts in return.
And Johnson got them for the Brown brothers. Their story follows the familiar pattern of the American dream, work hard and prosper. George Brown, for example, road building with a mule and a gang of men. Go soft on the mule and hard on the men was his motif. Then they sunk all their capital, all their savings, into a construction of a dam in Johnson’s county, the Hill Country. But would have went bust, the purchase of the land illegal, the machinery they bought for the job, a giant crane, useless junk, until Johnson sorted it with government officials (volume 2). Quid pro quo.
The Brown brothers kept financing Johnson’s political ambitions and in return became a multinational company. They were given, for example, government contracts to build ships, even although they hadn’t worked in the field of shipbuilding before. They became big not only in the Southern States but in the United States and as American influence grew, also abroad. The Brown brothers never forgot their roots. They hated organised labour and they hated niggas, who they thought were lazy. George Brown (of the spare the mule era) labelled any state help as ‘Gimmes’. The hundreds of millions (billions by today’s standards) weren’t, of course, classified as ‘Gimmes’.
Brown & Root were one of several oil and gas monopolies that set out to destroy Leland Olds. Their attack dog was Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, quid pro quo. Olds was chairman of the Federal Power Commission (FPC). If I were to describe Olds as a saintly man it would sound clichéd. Caro doesn’t do that, his history of Johnson goes sideways to explain the future President’s world in more detail. Olds was part of that world, so there is a chapter devoted to his rise and destruction. And the way in which Johnson cobbles together a Senate witch hunt, taking instruction from his business partners in Texas about strategy, because Old was a good man, Old was a mathematical genius, Old was a willing worker and servant of the public good. His Federal Power Commission stood in the way of even larger gas and monopoly profits—the oil depletion allowance, for example, government tax write-offs of tens of millions of dollars—because Olds worked out in advance what they were doing, how they were doing it and how much it cost. How much cheaper projects that harnessed the power of water and damns could be if it was done publicly, with federal aid and government stipulations. Electrical power generated sold to consumers at the lowest possible cost. Old created transparency were oil and gas monopolies needed lies and deception in reaping monopoly profits from America’s natural resources. They wanted increased government ‘gimmes’, but they wrapped their request in the language of lassez-faire politics and private enterprise being held back by federal meddling. The trillions of tax dollars given the richest cohort in American history by the moron’s moron is the equivalent strategy.
Johnson claimed that Old was a chameleon-like character who had inveigled himself into a position of power for his own ends. Johnson was describing himself. The oil and gas interests and the Southern Caucasus of Senators they had helped elect and keep in power had two obsessions: keeping ‘uppity’ ‘Negras’ down’ and hating Communists that subverted the American way of life. Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts had no greater supporters than those from the South, including Johnson.
It isn’t much an exaggeration to suggest Senator ‘Jim Eastland could be standing right in the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say the niggers caused it, helped by the Communists’.
Old saw first-hand how lassez-faire policies, big money and monopoly capital in the 1920s and 1930s sucked in and spat out men, women and children. A deeply religious man he despaired at those that called themselves Christian yet supported stock-market profits over Christian values and common humanity.
Johnson labelled him a red, his career was over. Johnson was lauded for his courageous attack on Old. Oil men cheered at the windfall profits put in their pocket. Old was against them, Johnson was for them. Big money has won. The FPC did as it was told by oil companies. It was no longer fit for purpose.
Another small group of men held the United States to ransom and these were the senators from the South. When Johnson entered the senate in 1948, he found out who was the most powerful Senator in the Senate—Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Russell knew the intricate dance of Senate law and procedure and had a say-so in which committees Senators were allocated. He was a patriot. He believed although the South had been defeated by the North’s force of overwhelming numbers in the Civil War, the new Confederacy of Southern interests would never been defeated in the Senate. He would keep fighting. Civil Rights were his speciality. Calling together Southern Senators into a Caucasus they would filibuster any attempt to give the black man rights in, for example, employment, housing, or most damming of all schools. The mixing of the races, miscegenation, would Russell believed lead to the dilution of the white race and the fall of the American nation. Arguments of a kind still used in relation to immigrants today (great dilution of European values by…fill in your own fall guy here).
Russell went along with the doctrine of his more dim-witted colleagues, for example, ‘I like mules but I don’t bring one into my living room.’ ‘Negras’ skulls were, one of his senatorial colleagues asserted, a quarter of an inch thicker which made their thinking slower. Russell despite being the conduit through which the President and armed services had to come for finance to be released—for wars and aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons— did not believe a black man could be courageous. He also firmly believed with their loose moral way, they could be conduits of venereal disease. His policy of separate but equal a convenient lie, the flag the new Confederacy aligned themselves and Texas under. The flag which Johnson pledged his allegiance to those other eleven states. On his ranch he made sure a white man oversaw the work of Mexican ranch hands, who Johnson also regarded as naturally lazy.
Karen Campbell’s novel The Sound of the Hours highlights in fictional form the paradox of a regiment of black men, Buffalo soldiers, fighting against fascism in Tuscany (The Gothic Line) in Italy. Frank Chapel, a young black American soldier is turned away from a field tent serving food, and made to eat outside. Inside the tent are captured white, Nazi soldiers, they had been fighting against, being served their food, their rations.
Black soldiers coming home from the war, in reality, faced the same problems they’d left behind. Jim Crow laws. Twelve million African-Americans, around five million Negroes of voting age, only a handful could register to vote. No law and no lawyer could help them. In many Southern states they were classified as ‘a lower order of being’. Black self-determination brought white reprisals. For example, a veteran of the war, Issac Woodward’s eyes were gouged out by a Sheriff when he was taken into custody. Two young black couples in Senator Russell’s state of Georgia were blocked in their cars by other cars and riddled with so many bullets their bodies were unrecognisable. Lynchings followed by public picnics.
The death of Emmet Till, August 1955, in Mississippi Delta might just have been another murder of black man by white man, but for his age, he was fourteen-year-old, and the resultant national and international publicity. His mother took his body back to Chicago, where they lived, he’d been visiting relatives when he dared to go into a white grocery store and buy bubble gum and sass the white shop assistant, allegedly saying, ‘Bye Baby’.
Roy Bryant and his half-brother ‘Big’ J.W.Miliam, took him away.
Emmet Till’s mum didn’t allow a closed coffin. One eye was grouched out. They’d smashed the bones in his face with the pistols of their Colt.45 pistols, until one side of his forehead caved in. They ordered him to strip naked, and took him to the Tallahatchie River, weighed him down, beat him again and, before they rolled him into the water, shot him in the temple. An all-white jury found them not guilty of the crime, even though they’d signed a statement saying they did it. Later, since they’d been found not guilty of the crime, they were paid $5000 for telling their side of the story. They freely admitted it was a lesson in keeping uppity negras down.
Lyndon Johnson, if he wanted to realise his dream of becoming Democratic candidate for the Presidential nomination had to find a way of placating senators rallying around the old Confederacy of Russell, who made the tail wag the dog of the United States government, but also position himself as a liberal that supported equal rights for all. He had to square the circle, while claiming not to be a nigger lover. He was able to do so, because it was he, not Old, that was a political chameleon. He was a consummate politician who knew himself and what other man wanted. A shooting in Dallas, Texas, handed him the position he most wanted in life. But unlike the dumbest President in history, Lyndon Johnson was ready. He’d been planning for that day his whole life. He was whip smart. A poor boy, but now a millionaire, he’d realised the American dream and was sworn in as President.