The Power of Green Book—A Message For Our Times

I just had the opportunity to watch the movie GREEN BOOK for the third time as I shared it with my parents (their first), and what continues to resonate with me is how much this film speaks into the divisiveness of modern American culture. We live in an age where people all too often regard people who disagree with them as enemies rather than friends, as people to avoid rather than to friend, as evil rather than ill-informed even, and the result has been a lot of hostility and anger with accusations of bullying from cyber attacks, accusations of this-phobia, that -ism and so on such that people feel they can’t exercise their right to free speech or even to be themselves freely anymore. And it’s a sad state of affairs.

GREEN BOOK is about the relationship between two men who come to discover how much they have in common and how the expectations and biases they imposed on each other at the start of the relationship are barriers that hindered, not helped their interactions. Tony Lip is a blue collar Italian-American bouncer who struggles to get by and feed his wife and kids, just survive in a dog eats dog world. As an Italian and lower class, less educated man, he is often looked down on by other whites, especially those of means. And he has learned to do what it takes to stand up for himself and get by. Doctor Don Shirley is an African American pianist who lives an elite life surrounded by the wealthy. His apartment is above Carnegie Hall, for example, and he finds himself distanced from his own people because he can’t relate to their daily lives and they can’t relate to his.

When Shirley decides to launch a tour of the Deep South, his record company puts out a call for a driver, and Lip—having been temporarily laid off when his club shut down for remodeling—responds. He’s rough, curses a lot, and even looks down on blacks similarly to how other whites look down on him. But he needs the work and Shirley needs a protector, so they wind up together. Of course, they clash. Ironically, Lip can’t understand Shirley’s lack of affinity for popular music and food often enjoyed by other African Americans, while Shirley tries to help Lip modify his own attitude and presentation to fit in better with the white upper crust they will encounter on their trip. Both resist, but through dialogue and continued determination, each starts to see wisdom and logic in how the other thinks. But only because they push through the discomfort and listen to each other.

By the end of the film, Shirley stands up for himself much as Lip has done for him, and he even learns to enjoy the popular music and food common to African American culture. Lip changes his attitude toward people of color and also begins learning how to communicate in more sophisticated, thoughtful, and polite ways as well as confront conflict with words not violence. The result is they forge a genuine friendship and respect for each other, despite their differences and each change a bit to be better men. Now, this movie is based on a real story, which makes it that much more moving to me because the possibility exists for all of us. All of us can come together with people who don’t see the world the way we do and don’t agree with us on important topics and, by listening and actually hearing and being open to what each other are saying, come to deeper understandings about the world and ourselves that can change us for the better. It’s a message of hope for those of us struggling in modern society, and much needed reminder, if you ask me, of times when disagreement was not automatic enmity and could be respected instead of scorned.

GREEN BOOK is nuances and subtle in its message, however. It does not slam you in the face with it. None of this is stated overtly. Instead it flows out of the story naturally and subtly over its course and the results are quite moving and powerful. In fact, each time I see it, I find something to think about that I’d missed the prior viewings. And to me, at least, that is the sign of a great film. We need more films that speak to this because our society is becoming more divided, not less, more hostile, not less, and more angry and resentful, not less. We compromise less than ever and so do lawmakers, with the result that we all pay a heavy price not just mentally but financially and physically as laws and decisions sorely needed fall by the wayside and nothing changes.

I have had several friendships similar to that of Tony Lip and Don Shirley, and they are among my most cherished relationships because those people are friends I can count on to hold me accountable and make me think through and question myself when I need it most. It’s so easy to shut one’s self off in a box and avoid conflict—surrounding one’s self instead with like minded friendlies—but the danger of that is when you are operating on half information and assumption, you may never correct your course and may carry on with false understandings that can do real harm. Instead, the Tony Lips to my Don Shirley are the very antidote needed to make sure this doesn’t happen to me, and I hope I am the same to them, because I think these kinds of relationships leave us better people for the results. And I don’t know about you but one of my goals in life is to constantly strive to be a better me.

For what it’s worth…

Ruminations on Freedom

Freedom is a funny thing. Celebrated far and wide as an ideal. Yet when you have it, you don’t always feel it, because freedom does come with a certain weight of responsibility. Some choose to ignore that. More and more these days, it seems. But that’s still true. After all, unrestrained, unabashed freedom can lead to chaos and conflict. Unless you live alone on an island with a volleyball, like Tom Hanks, perhaps.

Certainly I’ve always valued and appreciated freedom, most particularly freedom of speech, without which I couldn’t practice my trade as a writer and musician. And I’ve traveled enough to have some appreciation, though limited, of how fortune we are in the U.S. to have the freedoms we have. I used to take it far more for granted than I do today. But all things considered, we really do have it better than many, even most.

We haven’t always exercised our freedom wisely, for sure. The longstanding tradition of hailing ourselves as “the greatest country in the world” strikes me as arrogant these days. After all, others are proud of their countries, too. Do we deserve to consider ourselves better than everyone else? I certainly feel like the country has gone some negative directions of late. And history reveals many missteps as well, from those in times of war, to those in economic, political and civic matters and more. No doubt we are fortunate to be where we are. But we can do better, and we should do better. And one day, I hope we do again.

No, this is not one of those down on America posts. But given that patriotism tends to flare during July 4th, and it’s reflections of that Independence Day celebration which have led to this post, I wanted to admit, this is not one of those raging patriotic posts either.

For me, life is much too complicated.

Nations are only capable of being the best they can be on the heads of the people themselves, and given that people are flawed, with good and bad parts all, nations also struggle to rise to the top from time to time and even more to stay there. Doesn’t mean our nation isn’t wonderful. Doesn’t mean we aren’t fortune. But it does remind me that we mustn’t become to complacent or comfortable. There’s ongoing work to be done.

One of the things I appreciate about freedom is the ability to listen to and compare opinions with people from a variety of places, backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. Compromise, after all, has always been vital to successful democracy, and from the very start it’s played a huge role in the successes of this country. And one cannot compromise, if one does not understand everyone’s wants, needs, etc. Understanding them doesn’t mean you agree with them or even like them, but that you acknowledge they exist.

And, to me, compromise is what’s missing all too often from our society these days. Everyone is so polarized, something the media and pundits love to exacerbate. Tempers flare and people rage at the slightest provocation, it seems. And people are quick to assume and impugn motives, too, seemingly always reading everything in the worst light, rather than the best, which just feeds their tempers.

For me, part of maturity has been learning to think calmly whenever emotions come into play. After all, while emotions are free, we all have them all the time, they should not just be given free reign. Emotions are fickle and irrational, the antithesis of common sense, the enemy of compromise. And especially in days of the world wide web, it’s hard to really know what someone means or intends without deeper conversations, unless you know someone well and have had interpersonal contact.

And sadly freedom these days also allows people to have ignorant opinions in an ongoing way. After all, to be informed or not informed, to be educated or not educated, are choices people make.  Intellectual capacity is not, however. And some of both come into play.

But I think racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, while I wish they’d gone away, will always exist as long as humans exist, because we humans love to categorize everything from other people to beliefs, systems, things, etc. Inevitably such categorizations lead to comparisons, and feed the desire to distinguish one’s self from the pack in various ways. And that leads many, out of arrogance, insecurity or both, to find ways to  belittle others in order to elevate themselves. The fact that such is occurring using false criteria goes ignored. And that’s unfortunate.

As I said, there’s much work to be done. I’m of the belief that with freedom comes responsibility. And the greater the freedom, the greater the responsibility. Exercising freedom with responsibility means taking time to not assume and impugn but to question and dialogue and try and understand. You don’t have to agree, but chances are you’ll discover more common ground once you take that time and that will give you a foundation for deeper discussion. T0 me, such discussions have always proven worthwhile. The chance to look at the world through the eyes of Africans, Brazilians, poor, rich, and in between has made me a better person and broadened my worldview and perspective in every way. It hasn’t always changed my opinions. Often it’s affirmed them. But it has given me an ability to respect and value the diversity of our world.

For me, that’s one of the best parts of freedom–the ability to go and experience the world in broad and diverse ways through people, places, and things. It’s certainly been one of the freedoms I’ve most exercised, having traveled to Africa, Europe, South America and Central America numerous times over the past twenty years. And it’s one I hope to go on valuing, along with the freedom to take what I learn, process it, and let it inform how I live, what I do, what I say, what I write and more.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, indeed. I’m glad I have it. I hope others gain more daily. But I also hope they learn to use it responsibly. If everyone did, I have no doubt we c0uld create a better world. And that’s a goal I consider always worthy of hoping for.

For what it’s worth…

BTS author photo 2Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website or Facebook.