When I first went to Six Flags in third grade with my friend Stacey and her mom, I saw how American highways unfold dreams. They're vast and quiet. They allow free movement between states and cities. They host the start of summer trips and family vacations.
Stacey's mom let us choose the music on the way. We had Shanice's one-hit wonder "I Love Your Smile" playing on repeat. We nursed few worries except passing time until we got there. We were luckier still: never imagining our lives as under threat because we were Black on the interstate.
The right to open road travel is an unspoken, beautiful privilege of American life. It's also one of the many rights that Jim Crow laws denied Black people. For over half of the 20th century, traveling Black families faced life-threatening danger. Racist killers prowled for fresh bodies to hang. But somehow children, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunties sought and enjoyed leisure anyway. An industrious author named Victor Green published a book to help make that joy possible.
The Green Book: Guide To Freedom is a timely film on Green's handbook of the same name. His guide listed over 9,500 venues where Black vacationers were welcome. But it's only an afterthought in the fictional film that bears its title. Although that film earned five Oscar nominations — among them is Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) — it glosses over the significance of The Green Book in favor of narrowing the focus to the prevalence of White ignorance. That curious omission makes the origin story of The Green Book even more crucial. Director Yoruba Richen reveals it in a documentary that is equal parts proud and tragic.
In fifth grade, I rode with my best friend's family to upstate New York. There was a YMCA camp, Minisink, where his dad served as a board member. One of the perks was free year-round access to the lodges. On those roads, we marveled at autumnal orange and red stripes of the tree line. We played silly games like Minute Mysteries and zoned out on speedy pixels in Tetris. On a weekend fourth grade trip (that I wasn't on), he and my good friend George suffered a car accident. George’s severe injuries put him and my best friend in the hospital for over a week. So by age ten, we knew more about death but still didn't associate car travel with danger. Accidents happened, after all, and we were always in safe hands with our attentive parents.
A Black child growing up in the 1950s had to brace for a harsher reality. Back then, cautious parents hopped out of cars before checking into motels. They surveyed for rest stops that permitted "Colored" patrons. The sunset meant marauding hate gangs would close in on moving Black bodies. In "sundown towns," local papers declared curfews for all but White townsfolk, and laid out Black death sentences. Sundown towns weren't limited to states South of the Mason-Dixon line. Illinois, where thousands migrated for better conditions, contained hundreds of sundown towns.
By 1936, Victor Green had outlined in his guide the places in Harlem where Black families could stay. That same stretch of Harlem I rode through on the way to camp segregated customers along race lines.
Richen acknowledges this hard truth in her film too:
“I’m from New York. My mom is from New York. And we know, from personal experience, from our family members and friends, that racism and segregation was everywhere. In New York. In Harlem. So that fact that segregation and racism existed all over the country was not new to me but it is part of how racism is understood, or how the narrative is told, that it [was] confined to the South.”
No matter how Black their legacies, venues like the Cotton Club excluded Blacks unless they were celebrities. Green wanted to tip the economic scales with his information and he did. But without Richen's film, he'd be a footnote in his own story. As inclusive as the Academy Awards aim to be, they're like the Cotton Club: unwilling to see Black life past the stage.
Richen sought to dignify Green's story in her well-rounded documentary:
"There's a righteous anger that can motivate me. The anger about how our history and our experience has been distorted and ignored. Yes, there are these painful stories. But there's the joy and the survival of us that makes me, over and over again, love the Black community, and admire our experience. With The Green Book, it's not just about fear and violence. The Green Book was used and created to help African-Americans find vacation spots. In 1940, Victor Green changed the title to be 'The Green Book: Negro Motorists' Guide To Travel And Vacations.' He added the word 'vacations.' And that's ours. It's not all just pain and hardship. We have created these communities, and experiences and places for us despite living in a terroristic society."
Why then did Hollywood further distort the purpose of Green's guide? American film — even ones with summer road trips — hides the ugliest parts of history. The first version of The Green Book featured Harlem listings because Green knew his hometown sheltered segregation. The lack of hotels to host Blacks in Harlem is a shameful fact of the Renaissance era but it inspired change.
Where Green Book, fictional and flowery, misses, Richen's documentary hits the target. Viggo Mortensen plays "Tony Lip," a passively-racist White man enamored of his own opinions and muscle, yet stuck unemployed. Mahershala Ali, in his supporting role, plays the esteemed pianist Don Shirley. Shirley needs a driver to guide him through the Southern states and to act as his bodyguard in spooky, bigoted towns. But in a twist, Shirley's character is an élitist, often unable to see past his nose and connect to others. Meanwhile, Tony Lip is a man among the people, gliding through Black spaces with sparse knowledge of the culture and loads of "cool" (he loves fried chicken and Doo Wop music.) In Hollywood's odd symmetry of character flaws, the Black man's uppity airs equal the White man's disdainful, obtuse view of an entire race.
Richen's film, by contrast, tells a different and rare story. In it, Black women entrepreneurs pioneered where few like them could thrive. Alberta Ellis (owner of Alberta's House hotel) and Modjeska Montieth Simkins (owner of Motel Simbeth) fought White supremacy by running businesses that defied rules. Ellis and Simkins are protagonists of a broader Black story, the one where owners had to be activists.
In conversation with Richen, she explained ownership trends that defined us in hardship. She recalls those women so they don't escape from memory.
"These were women entrepreneurs who were serving the community. Modjeska Montieth Simkins was a civil rights hero in and of herself. Alberta Ellis was too. You have to remember there were 9,500 listings from 1936 to 1967. There's a lot of information to mine in The Green Book. At one point, when we were figuring the story — The Green Books are all online, the Schomburg has them all online — we had to click through the pages one by one. We started to see how many women owned businesses. And they had little pictures of themselves next to slogans like 'Food like mom used to make' and 'Come and rest your head.' And these were the only places that Black performers could stay."
They pushed a civil rights agenda on their terms and listed their lodging spaces in The Green Book. I imagine how their biopics would play to American moviegoers. I imagine who might find these stories as valuable as I do. I know that they created safe havens for children who marveled at open roads like I did. Where Green Book celebrates the cocky ignorance of one White man, and goads viewers into empathizing with his warm-and-fuzzy turn to decency, The Green Book: Guide To Freedom opens a chapter about Black women who pop culture cinema neglected.
American highways promise lush dreams but also hide uneasy history. The rolling hills and verdant tree lines mark the sites of over 4,000 lynchings. Roadside motels either housed tourists or rejected those who didn't fit the bill. The Green Book may enter lore as a polished tale with a ribbon-wrapped ending. Or it will break our quiet with voices from history that refuse to fade to black.
THE GREEN BOOK: GUIDE TO FREEDOM premieres Monday, February 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel and is now available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app.