The Mast-Head: Racial History Revived

The feel-good movie “Green Book” winning the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night drew immediate protest. Most notable, perhaps, was the filmmaker Spike Lee’s comments and fast walk out of the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. But more measured, if no less passionate, responses came from all corners. 

One that I found particularly illuminating was on The New York Times’s “The Daily” podcast. On Tuesday, Michael Barbaro, the host, spoke with Wesley Morris, a Times critic at large, about the context and message of “Green Book” and its Oscar win. Most sharply, Mr. Morris pointed out that “Green Book” was almost a remake of “Driving Miss Daisy,” both of which he pegs as racial reconciliation fantasy. 

“Green Book” screened here in October as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival. “BlacKkKlansman,” Mr. Lee’s far superior film, also nominated for Best Picture, had a celebrity V.I.P. screening here in August. 

“I’m snake bit,” Mr. Lee said backstage on Sunday. “Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose — but they changed the seating arrangement!”

If you have not seen it, “Green Book” involves a white tough guy from the Bronx hired to drive a black concert pianist on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. Through proximity and osmosis, the men forge a bond of friendship.

Set in the South, “Green Book” might feel safe for Northern audiences used to thinking that racist divides are a Southern thing, even though that is not true, especially on Long Island.

During a forum last fall on Sag Harbor’s historically black neighborhoods (which, incidentally are more or less all on the East Hampton side of the town line), I was struck by an audience member who spoke about car rides as a young woman from her family’s Brooklyn brownstone. Once getting on the road, there was no stopping until they reached Riverhead, she said, the middle of the Island being unsafe for strangers of color.

Personally, there was poignancy to the timing of the Academy Awards, “Green Book,” and Mr. Lee’s outrage. That afternoon, I had taken part in a near-sellout event at Bay Street Theater sponsored by Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island on the topic of East End slavery.

My own involvement has been through the Plain Sight Project, a joint venture between the East Hampton Library and The Star to identify and compile a list of every enslaved person and free person of color who lived, worked, or died in East Hampton from the 1650s to the 1830s. The core idea is that these men, women, and children have been excluded from the founding story of the United States, and of our town, and that by learning their names and encouraging other communities to do similar work, we can gradually make the American myth more accurate.

In his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay, Mr. Lee hit the same note: “Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today. . . .” He is correct, of course. 

Some of the Plain Sight Project’s work can be previewed at plainsightproject.org.