This year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture was Green Book, a fictionalized account of a true story. In the film, African-American classical pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, is trying to do a concert tour through the south in 1960s America. He and his white driver use The Green Book to help them navigate the journey.
The film introduced many white audiences to The Green Book itself, which offered African-Americans a guide to safe places to eat and stay across America. It was published from 1936 to 1967 by Victor Green, an African-American postal worker from Harlem.
A new documentary available on the Smithsonian Channel explores the genesis of The Green Book, visits some of the places in it, and talks with people who remember using it. The film, called The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, was directed by Yoruba Richen, a filmmaker and professor of film at the City University of New York. Richen says one of the things she most wanted to do was to show that not all racism took place in the South:
"The Green Book was created in New York," she explains. "The first listings were in New York, in Harlem, where Victor Green, the creator, lived. And that's because there were places right in Harlem, in 1936 — the biggest black metropolis in the country — that we were not allowed to go to. Where we could not be served."
As important as these guides are in documenting the systemic racism in the United States, Richen also wants her film to be about more than that.
"I just thought it was a great way to talk about various aspects [of the black experience], like entrepreneurship in the black community, the pursuit of leisure and recreation, and the growth of the middle class with the automobile industry," she says.
Richen was in town last week for a screening sponsored by Milwaukee Film/Black Lens, and agreed to meet us at the Ambassador Hotel on West Wisconsin Avenue for our interview. The Ambassador was one of the listings from the 1966 edition of The Green Book.