Wed. May 22nd, 2019

The Green Book and The Vernon Philosophy Of Black Media Avoidance

“I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally. He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” Edwin told Shadow and Act. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’” – 

from Mahershala Ali Apologized to His Green Book Character’s Family After Controversy by Hunter Harris

Mahershala Ali has apologized to the family of Don Shirley the musician he portrays in the new film Green Book. Shirley’s family, who were apparently left as unknown to the filmmakers/actors as was the reality of the man’s life, have said the film falsely depicts their relative by misrepresenting his pride in and awareness of self, his (lack of) friendship with Tony “Lip” Vallelonga played by Viggo Mortensen, and disrespects his stated request while alive that no such film be made. However, to an industry so essential to the management and reflection of public opinion such concerns are of necessity routinely ignored.

The Vernon Philosophy of Black Media Avoidance (VPBMA) is a semi-ironic homage to an old friend and an argument for a much needed political clarity around – and aggressive hostility toward – popular culture and mass media. Simply, many years ago a Black friend and co-worker, Vernon, said he would no longer go to any films which included Black actors. Initially, I thought this absurd or at least an over-corrective response to a clear, long-standing and well-documented problem of Black media portrayal. I only needed a few decades and the accumulation of massive student-loan debt to realize just how correct Vernon was/is.

For more substantive argument and documentation I welcome those interested to peruse my own lectures and presentations on the subject and our tremendous catalog of broadcasts, interviews and essays on the history and function of mass media in the U.S. For now, however, suffice it so say that, given the ideological and political function media play (none more significantly than here in the United States today) the VPBMA argues that Black people, any oppressed group, must refuse acceptance of any and all pop cultural or symbolically “positive” depictions. Said differently the VPBMA calls for an immaterial boycott of commercial pop cultural product as any seeming redeeming content either isn’t really or exists only to further confuse, weaken or diminish the capacity for critical, radical and countervailing thought.

The “boycott” is immaterial because the VPBMA is not a particular political call-to-action and is specific only to the arena of dominant idea formation, public opinion and analysis. The purpose is to overtly and aggressively challenge the tendency among us all to desire recognition from power or to see ourselves positively reflected by power and to focus more on assuming power – the only position from which to control the popular dissemination of media, symbol and image.

Morgan Freeman shows why his and other Black celebrity exist. 

A few morsels from the story of Ali’s apology are worthy of quick note and do help explain the VPBMA. Note first that Ali tells how he is limited by the material with which he is given to work and that he didn’t even know Shirley has remaining family with whom he could have consulted. This speaks to the powerlessness of those we see on screen – who are always the least powerful people in the process of media production – and to the irrelevance reality holds to stories industry needs to tell. The tradition of the “Magic Negro,” the Black character whose only purpose is the transcendence of a White one or White people or Whiteness. Think of almost all of Morgan Freeman‘s career. Which also speaks to that political purpose – Freeman’s entire career and popularity was developed and maintained specifically so that his cinematic function could be brought forward, when necessary, to mainstream television for the above full-on condemnation of all Black people and poverty.

In life Shirley “flatly refused” to have his real story turned into that of another “Magic Negro” performance and denied the claim of any closeness to Vallelonga. But once dead and with his family kept far from the production Shirley can be resurrected as he was not. To serve what purpose? Is it perhaps another attempt to mollify a new generation of increasingly (and justifiably) angry Black people? We did just see the founders of Black Lives MatterdenounceThe Hate U Give as performing a similar movement-denying/diminishing function. Or is it just another cyclical attempt at redefining race-relations as being a matter of interpersonal experiences and not the result (at least in large part) of mass dissemination of structurally dependent myths?

It should also be noted that it wasn’t that long ago that actor Viggo Mortensen was being presented to us by an adoring White Left press as a forward-thinking “peace activist.” Once more the value of the VPBMA is demonstrated in its insistence that we reject overtures from commercial product which reduce the likelihood of confusion over seeing nominally progressive people performing horrific pop cultural functions. Whether this is part of the traditional struggle between Black radicals and the White Left or simply the reality that the politics of the performer are irrelevant – or both and more – it remains that when bent to commercial form the pre-existing individual disappears. Only their function remains.

Like it or not, once seen participating in pop cultural commercial product, propaganda or marketing, any individual actor, performer – or the idea, people or history depicted – immediately lose (all?) value to positively representing critical or radical politics. Think Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli all of whom have done Coke, Toyota and GE commercials. Nothing they rhyme, say or do after can balance the interpretive damage this does to those trying to assess them as radical figures. Beyoncé cannot represent both Pepsi and the Panthers. For many she simply becomes the acceptable contemporary interpretation of what “radical” and “Black Panther” mean. Worse, of course, is that Ryan Coogler film which we’ve spent a good amount of time on already. The VPBMA is not a critique of individual performance or choice, this is not a critique of artists or media-makers. The VPBMA is an attempt to reorient audiences to the context of our media environment and the function of pop cultural media product.  

More difficult is the VPBMA challenge to reject psychic overtures from commercial industrial product which claim to be uplifting history for the people (BTW, the onlyFor The People” we officially recognize here at iMWiL! is that from the legendary Listervelt Middleton). This is why I have historically rejected films like Selma and Fruitvale Station. And it is why I have stood already against rumors of films about Assata Shakur and Fred Hampton. We gain nothing from pop cultural depictions of radical histories but distorted versions which work more to recreate them as immaturities or imperfections to overcome or, worse, as somehow accepting of the world as we know it as inevitable or as an improvement. Films, perhaps more than any other medium, also confer a stronger sense of understanding onto the audience meaning that more people who leave feel they now have clarity around a given topic and need not follow up for more study – contrary to popular myth. Remember the positive impact Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X was meant to have? That historical mess paved the way for its “academic” equivalent, one that continues to demand our response.

But the greatest challenge of the VPBMA is it’s insistence that we forgo fame for substance and find, create and disseminate alternative forms of art and entertainment that does the political and cultural work we so desperately look for from institutional power and producers of media or ideological product. The VPBMA is a base call for an immaterial break from dominant culture that if cannot rise to the level of material boycott can at least produce a baseline standard of intellectual rejection, refusal and resistance to the empty and distorted forms of ourselves, our politics and our histories we will continue to suffer.

Not sure? Don’t like the VPBMA or just don’t agree? No worries, here comes The Upside

8 thoughts on “The Green Book and The Vernon Philosophy Of Black Media Avoidance

  1. I don’t know if you wrote at all on Don Cheadle’s incredibly tragic, racist and absurdly comic-book style biopic on Miles Davis, but it fits the template perfectly. If you did comment on Miles Ahead, I’d love to read your take.

    1. Lol I did see that film! I wouldn’t have much more to say on that film other than to repeat your point that it fits the template. But I’m sure there are some powerful critiques of that film out there. It was a mess.

  2. BAR [see @ http://www.blackagendareport.com/green-book-not-our-story-his-story-their-fiction ] gives a more complete analysis of just how much Holly-weird [grossly] distorted Dr Shirley’s life-story. It’s as if Holly-weird either didn’t bother to do its homework re Dr Shirley, &/or IMO they did NOT give a damn & distorted his story intentionally.

    This BAR piece by Wilmer J. Leon III, critique of Holly-weird’s ‘Green-Book’ ‘tale’ of Dr Shirley [who held 3 PhDs & spoke 8 languages & was a musical genius] is damning, because they chose to hype stereotype fiction over true fact:

    1} Dr Donald Shirley was NOT raised by a [stereotypical Black] single mom, but he & his 3 brothers were raised in a 2 parent family. In fact ironically since his mom died when he was age 9, arguable Dr Shirley & his brothers were raised by a single Black DAD [his father was a Rev]!

    2} As such Dr Shirley & his mom NEVER had to ‘panhandle’ to survive.

    3} Dr Shirley did NOT have a drinking problem & only rarely drank scotch.

    4} Tony the ‘Lip’ was just Dr Shirley’s driver [whom Dr Shirley ended up firing], NOT his friend & confidant, nor manager. nor ‘troubleshooter’.

    5} As such & being a musical virtuoso raised in a Black church environment- Dr Shirley sure as HELL did NOT need some white-boy name Tony the ‘Lip’ to introduce him to the music of the ‘Queen of Soul’ [the late great Aretha Franklin], Little Richard, R&B &/or ‘Soul Music’, nor ‘Soul-Food’ either.
    – In fact Dr Shirley was actually friends w / knew such Black ‘giants’ as: Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Leontyne Price, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson, William Warfield, Harry Belafonte, etc… [almost everyone on this list except MLK is a musical legend in the Black community & beyond]

    6} Dr. Shirley did NOT sit on a throne in his apartment like the “King of the Coons” as was FALSELY depicted by Holly-weird’s ‘tall{‘Green-Book’}tale’. In-fact Dr Shirley did not even own a [damn] throne!!

    This film purposely and lazily infuses generally accepted stereotypes about African American people such as being born impoverished to a single mother, no strong male figure, disconnected from his family, community and self. Here is a man that earned PhDs in Music, Psychology & Liturgical Arts. Dr. Shirley was fluent in 8 languages & was also a talented painter. Still the film would have us believe that it wasn’t until some ‘Great White-Hope [aka Tony the ‘Lip’] rode in on his trusty green Cadillac, that Dr. Shirley was finally able to find himself & connect- When in-fact he was never lost or out of touch with his family or who he was as a Black man.
    – Dr. Shirley’s TRUE-Life’s story would have made a much better film. Had the screenwriters & producers bothered to perform even the most rudimentary research & reached out to the Shirley family, they would have discovered a much more interesting, enlightening & empowering story- Of a brilliant Black-man, born in the deep South in 1927. A man born into a highly educated family, earns 3 Ph.D. degrees, becomes a world-renowned pianist & composer, millionaire, friend of Dr. King’s & supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

    1. IMO depicting Dr Shirley’s TRUE-Life’s story would have been much more interesting & uplifting, but would have broke w Holly-weird’s stereotypical formula & for Black folks, & thus IMO likely would NOT have even been made [at-least NOT in Holly-weird].

      Bro M.Ali can apologize to the Shirley Family from now on, it would have behooved him to have done a bit of H.W. when portraying an actual historical person [who only recently passed on a few yrs ago]- But again, Had Bro Ali insisted on a more honest depiction of Dr Shirley’s actual life, he probably would have ended-up talking himself out of the role / being booted out of the job!!

      But after learning of all these major distortions that ‘Green-Book’ does to Dr Shirley’s life, IMO it’s probably best that Black-folks don’t pay $$$ to go to see it- Even tho movies like this ain’t necessarily made w Black-folks as its main target audience.

  3. I am an actor! I’ve gotta say that the ambiguity between just working and relevancy, versus taking a very extreme political and progressive stance, has been extremely overwhelming lately. Mostly because of the great number of movies that have bum-rushed the theater getting passed off as revolutionary and pro-black and end up being anything and everything but. In the past, as I was auditioning and getting very few roles only to see the same handful of actors get the roles I was up for, then being told to remain patient and resilient as my time was nigh, I vowed, juxtaposed to Vernon, to never see a role that didn’t have Black actors in it; thinking this would somehow solidify my focus on the part I played in (not) getting work. The last straw was going to the movies to see The Hate U Give, thinking I was finally about to see a revolutionary/anti-police brutality/Tupacolypse movie (I hadn’t read the book), only to discover there was a hook in it; so… thanks to Brother Jared and posts like this one, I’ve decided to give the Vernon Philosophy of Black Media Avoidance a try; I’ll focus on my art in other ways, sacrificing, no doubt, the few pennies I make as a pseudo-employed actor, but for sure solidifying and securing my integrity, peace-of-mind, and some good nights of sleep… I hope!

  4. Gee whiz, I feel like being insulted today, I think I’ll pay and go see a negative black movie.

    Whoa, the ‘magical Negro’ seems to have a commonality with Malcolm X’s somewhat humorous depiction of the house Negro during slavery: “If the master said, ‘we got a good house here’, the house Negro would say, ‘yeah, we got a good house here’. Whenever the master said ‘we’, he said ‘we’. That’s how you can tell a house Negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself”.— Malcolm X; Message to the Grass Roots, 1963.

    Black folks who allow themselves to be depicted in a negative manner will always be given jobs by ‘Hollyweird’.

    Listed here are a few quotes and perhaps antidotes by substantial artists and activist which confirms and gives support to VPBMA’s insistence that we forgo fame for substance:

    “Black people must investigate and validate their own existence, irrespective of other people’s opinions of them”— Stephen Bantu Biko.

    “The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people- to make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely”.—Amiri Baraka.

    “The sign on America’s door is leave your Africaness outside. My sign says claim what’s yours”.— August Wilson.

  5. Lol! The upside! What type of shit is this. I’m go watch it though. You know, I’ve been seeing more and more stories about the Russian attempt to mislead and
    influence the Black vote during the last elections and I find it curious that this started to ramp up after the release of Creed 2. A black man named “Adonis” fighting a big bad Russian. They’re really trying to take the focus off the U.S. and it’s internal issues.

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