SURPRISE HIT

Why audiences in China are loving Green Book

Green Book
Green Book
Image: Universal Pictures
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“You people love fried chicken,” says a white chauffeur to the black man in the back seat, offering him a drumstick. “You have a very narrow assessment of me,” the passenger responds, refusing to take it. After a short argument, he begins to gingerly nibble on the chicken, then polishes it off, and even flings the bone out the window, in imitation of his carefree driver.

At that, the people around me watching Green Book in a downtown shopping mall in Guangzhou, in southern China, burst into delighted laughter.

A last-minute ticket purchase had put me in the second row of a packed screening on Saturday (March 2), a day after the film staring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen had opened in China, and just a few days after the film was awarded the Oscar for best picture—despite criticism in the US for its excessively simplistic portrayal of race relations.

The fried chicken scene quickly became one of the most talked about in China, where the film has proved very popular among Chinese moviegoers, a surprise given that audiences nowadays seem to mostly favor films about China’s rising power, both on earth and in space.

The film is based on the true story of a 1962 road trip taken by the African-American pianist Donald Shirley (Ali), and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen)—an out-of-work (and racist) Italian-American he hired to drive him on a concert tour of the South. The film’s name references an actual guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book, that African-American travelers in the segregation era used to find motels, gasoline stations, and restaurants willing to serve them.

Film critics in the US have argued that the upbeat buddy story fails to capture the true intensity of that history, and, worse, centers a film about anti-black racism and the African-American experience around a white man and his personal journey. Shirley’s own family has criticized the movie.

In China, however, the controversy hasn’t hurt the film’s reputation. On Taopiaopiao, a movie-ticketing platform under Alibaba Pictures (which is also an investor in the film), Green Book boasts a score of 9.4/10, based on the ratings of more than 220,000 fans. On the social network and movie review platform Douban the movie has (link in Chinese) a rating of 8.9/10, outperforming 98% of comedies and 97% of dramas. The film has taken in more than $30 million (link in Chinese) since it opened, making it the highest-earning best-picture winner in China after Titanic In the past many Oscar best-picture films have been viewed as niche, and haven’t done very well.

Poring over the comments on Taopiaopiao and Douban, and thinking of my own response to the movie—I really enjoyed it—I began to wonder if the very qualities that made the film controversial in the US have been key to helping it connect with people on the other side of the world. As the critics point out, it’s a feel-good movie—well-paced, funny at times, and touching as the characters open their hearts to each other.

“The story-telling is simple yet touching,” one user wrote on Douban (link in Chinese). “The journey connects people of different skin colors, classes, and cultural backgrounds together. They had stereotypes, but they made peace at last. We choose to believe a story of this kind because we hope people can achieve kindness, understanding, and equality.” Another fan on Douban wrote: “It’s a good combination to put a white man from the society’s bottom and a black man from the top. It’s no longer a simple, black-and-white concept and a superficial politically correct discussion.”

In the US, the fried chicken scene was seen as an example of the film’s problematic portrayal of race relations—but in China that moment was widely discussed on the social media platform Weibo as one of the film’s best scenes. A lot of the chatter is just jokes from Chinese users saying they would love to have a KFC Family Bucket. But many also felt connected to Shirley’s complex character—”the doctor who uses indifference to cover the inner loneliness,” as one Douban reviewer describes him. (Ali won the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role for the portrayal.)

At the Guangzhou theater, the crowd burst into laughter at the moments where Shirley teaches Tony’s character courtesy, a contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of black people that Western media has spread, as Han Haoyue, a film critic told the state media outlet People’s Daily. Shirley helps Vallelonga write letters to his wife, including correcting his spellings and polishing his metaphors, which resonated with the audience, since the effort to delicately express love is valued in Chinese culture (link in Chinese) too.

People also appreciated the way Shirley handles an act of wrongdoing by Tony. Early in the trip, Tony steals a jade stone from a roadside stand—a “lucky rock” he picked up off the ground, he claims. Shirley tells him to put it back, and Tony pretends to do so. Shirley doesn’t bring it up again until, during a heavy snowstorm on their way back to New York, he asks to borrow Tony’s lucky rock to get through it. Viewers felt that showed care for not hurting Tony’s dignity. More generally, people liked the film for depicting the idea of finding support and understanding in a friendship.

None of this, of course, mitigates the film’s flaws. And some people in China saw the film in much the same way as its critics in the US: “Really quite a white-male perspective,” said one Douban reviewer (link in Chinese). “This piece is very traditional—no wonder it won the Oscar.”

Still, for many in China, the film offered a peek into America’s segregation-era history, a complex topic many are little acquainted with—and perhaps whetted their appetite to know more. In fact, a majority of China’s 1.4 billion people have had little exposure to black people until recently, as China’s increasing ties (and investments) in African countries have resulted in a greater exchange of people in both directions. That profound lack of familiarity has certainly resulted in racism—as expressed, for example, in the experiences of African migrants, or some of the harsh comments on films such as the popular Marvel superhero movie Black Panther.

But increasingly, people are becoming more aware as they are more exposed to people of different cultures. Recently, for example, China’s state media channel CCTV faced a backlash in China when the broadcaster put a Chinese actress in blackface in a skit on one of the country’s most-viewed TV programs.

Arguably, even Green Book’s limitations are an opportunity for learning. Born and raised in China myself, I’ve never had a chance to acquire an in-depth knowledge of that particular history, other than briefly touching upon of US slavery at school. The film inspired me to read more about segregation and to realize that the restrictions on black people during that period made travel far more burdensome than what the film portrays. Instead of just a few pieces of luggage for clothes, as shown in the film, black families had to travel with gasoline and food because of the high risk of being turned away by white-run businesses.

The movie’s approach may have been excessively light for people closer to that history, but for a more distant audience, it seems to have been the right touch.

“As a foreign audience, we watch the movie as outsiders,” wrote Yin Wenxi (link in Chinese), a self-described film critic on Weibo. “We are touched by a simple story and interesting characters. We embrace the warmth [from the movie] in a time of transition from winter to spring.”