A new documentary tells the history of the real Green Book, but the director doesn’t support the Oscar-winning movie

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“The Green Book: Guide to Freedom”
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Smithsonian Channel

  • “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom,” a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, aims to tell the true history behind the Negro Motorist Green Book, a pre-civil-rights-era travel guide for African Americans.
  • Director Yoruba Richen said she’s “not interested” in supporting “Green Book,” the Oscar-winning movie surrounded by controversy.
  • “At this point, everyone should know better, in my opinion,” Richen told Business Insider. “It just seems like this is very retro to do it this way with a white writer and a white director.”
  • Richen learned of “Green Book” after it premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, but was deep into filming the documentary at that point.

Oscar-winning movie “Green Book” was a focus for critics and audiences this awards season – for both negative and positive reasons – but a new Smithsonian Channel documentary aims to focus the conversation on the real Green Book, a pre-civil-rights-era travel guide for African Americans throughout the US.

“The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” documentary recounts the history of the Negro Motorist Green Book, a history that the movie – which won three Oscars on Sunday, including best picture – only briefly references.

Created in 1936 by Victor Green, a postal worker from Harlem, the Green Book originated as a guide to safe businesses in New York City that accepted African Americans. In the years that followed, it evolved into a country-spanning travel and vacation guide that ultimately included over 900 locations (only one third of which are still standing, according to the documentary).

READ MORE: ‘Green Book’ won the best picture Oscar after facing controversies including an anti-Muslim tweet and genital flashing

Director Yoruba Richen told Business Insider that she became attached to the documentary prior to learning that the “Green Book” movie was in development. She knew that a movie about African-American musician Don Shirley (played in “Green Book” by Mahershala Ali, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for the role) was in the works because his great niece, Yvonne Shirley, told her. Yvonne has spoken out against “Green Book’s” depiction of Shirley, claiming it misrepresents him.

It wasn’t until the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018 that Richen realized the Don Shirley film was “Green Book.” At that point, Richen’s documentary had been greenlit by Smithsonian.

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“Green Book”
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Universal

“Green Book” tells the story of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer at clubs in New York City who takes a job driving Shirley (Ali) during a tour through the Deep South in the 1960s. In the movie, Vallelonga uses the Green Book to navigate.

Apart from the Shirley family’s disapproval of the movie, “Green Book” has been plagued by other controversies. Director Peter Farrelly apologized last month when past reports resurfaced that he repeatedly flashed his genitals in front of colleagues in the 1990s. And writer Nick Vallelonga, son of Frank, deleted his Twitter account after an anti-Muslim tweet resurfaced.

Richen said that she hasn’t seen “Green Book” because she’s been “extremely busy,” but she’s followed the criticism and she’s “not interested” in supporting the movie.

READ MORE: All the winners of the 2019 Oscars

“The Green Book is one example of how African Americans, and people of color in general and marginalized groups, are advocating for us to be able to tell our own stories,” Richen said. “That to me is where the problem lies, that it’s a white director, a white writer, and it’s a take on this fascinating character, Dr. Shirley, that’s from the white perspective.”

She continued, “At this point, everyone should know better, in my opinion. It just seems like this is very retro to do it this way with a white writer and a white director. If you’re going to have a white writer, have a black director or at least an African-American co-writer, or something. It just seems weird to me.”

The silver lining to the “Green Book” controversy for Richen is that it has provoked conversation and interest in the history of the guide, which she said had been overlooked.

“There are a lot of folks that were a part of our history and narrative that have been lost,” Richen said. “If you do learn anything about the civil rights movement, it’s a very narrow lens, so a lot of people have been left out.”

Richen said the most eye-opening aspect of making the documentary for her was how the Green Book created a community for African Americans.

“We have one subject in the film who called it a ‘parallel universe,'” Richen said. “These books were a map of that. And it really helped build a middle class and serve a middle class. Yes, it was for safety, obviously, but by the early ’40s, it was called the Guide to Travel and Vacations.”

“The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” is available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app, and will air on the Smithsonian Channel Monday at 8 p.m.