The Real Green Book

When UK-based production company Impossible Factual approached Yoruba Richen in the summer of 2017 to helm a new documentary about The Negro Motorist Green Book, a manual that helped African Americans navigate the country while traveling, the award-winning filmmaker had never heard of it. Richen’s last feature, The New Black, placed viewers in the midst of the marriage equality debate in African-American communities. It was her unwavering dedication to social justice that made her an excellent choice for the documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, which aired on the Smithsonian Channel in February.

And while most contemporary audiences were introduced to The Green Book through the recent dramatic film of the same name that allegedly depicts the southern tour of jazz pianist Don Shirley — a Black gay man — and his White driver, Richen’s documentary focuses on The Negro Motorist Green Book published from 1936 to 1966 as an African-American guide for safe travel during Jim Crow.

“Unfortunately we still have that issue of some places not being safe for us,” Richen says, pointing out the 2017 NAACP travel warning issued for the state of Missouri. “Even in times where it feels like we’re making progress, danger still exists for us in this country.”

But The Green Book wasn’t just about safety, Richen emphasizes.

“Its 1940s subtitle described it as ‘the guide to travel and vacation,’ says Richen. “It provided a safe resource where we could vacation and support our community businesses.”

Intersectionality is always a part of her work, says Richen, noting that women-owned businesses were a substantial portion of The Green Book.

“African-American women are the pillars of the community and were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Richen. “We’re also the entrepreneurs of our community as well, which we don’t often get credit for.”

It’s part of a distorted history of untold stories that Richen finds are also the hardest projects to fund. Yet most of her work is situated in this artful correction of faulty historical narratives. Richen’s next project is similarly invested in taking a fresh look at an unsolved 1967 civil rights murder in Mississippi. She also wants to examine Black armed resistances overlooked by traditional civil rights narratives.

“There are so many stories that we have that we need to understand in terms of our past,” Richen says. “And not just documentaries, they deserve a fiction film as well.”

Although Richen lists scholar/activist Angela Davis, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as inspirations who are adding intersectional lenses to political and social landscapes, her dream film (if funding were guaranteed) would profile the life and work of journalist Ida B. Wells. Until then, Richen is excited for viewers to “delve into a true story of what the Green Book is.”

The Green Book Guide to Freedom premieres Monday, February 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.

— M Shelly Conner

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