The following is a guest blog post by Josephine Lee, author of Oriental, Black, and White: The Formation of Racial Habits in American Theater, available for pre-order and on sale September 2022.
Oriental, Black, and White focuses on how nineteenth and early twentieth century American theater featured Chinese, Indian, and other “oriental” characters played by both Black and white actors. These stock roles complicated the racial dynamics of stage performance beyond the more common types of blackface minstrelsy. My book emphasizes how various stereotypes functioned to associate racialized bodies with states of servitude, as familiar portrayals of Black slaves and servants were joined onstage by comic representations of coolies, houseboys, and laundrymen. This amalgamation reflected how Asian immigrants—excluded by law and perceived as inherently unassimilable to American culture—were also seen as sources of cheap and subhuman labor.
My research gave me a different perspective on the 2018 film Green Book. Inspired by the story of African American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian American driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), most viewers understood the movie mainly as a commentary on Black-white race relations. However, I was struck by how the film presented three different Asian or Asian American characters in various scenes. A Chinese man (an uncredited role) appears in a scene in which Vallelonga goes to interview for the job as Shirley’s driver. In another scene, Bobby, an Asian American bartender (David An) serves Vallelonga a drink. Shirley already employs a South Asian man, Amit (Iqbal Theba), as his personal assistant.
These Asian and Asian American characterizations add another dimension to the film’s re-creation of 1960s-era New York. Their appearance, however, does more than provide local color; they also complicate how the film examines racialized labor in the main plotline, which moves through different stages of Vallelonga and Shirley’s working relationship. Vallelonga at first insists that his job as Shirley’s driver not be confused with that of the domestic servant. Insulted when asked to act as Shirley’s valet during a tour of the segregated South, Vallelonga demands that his duties be confined to driving, and threatens to turn down the job, leaving only the Chinese applicant, whom Vallelonga disparages with a racial slur.
“However, I was struck by how the film presented three different Asian or Asian American characters in various scenes.”
If the white working-class Vallelonga at first chafes at having to serve a Black man, in contrast Amit performs as the quintessential servant to Shirley, occupying the role of domestic as a brown—but significantly, not Black—character. His rigid adherence to protocol references British colonialism, and before the tour’s departure, Amit attempts in vain to coach Vallelonga on his new duties. Amit’s obvious pride in domestic work highlights him as racially distinct not only from Vallelonga, who cannot imagine himself in service to a Black man, but also Shirley, whose talent and relative wealth exempts him from the lowly employment forced upon other Black people.
Amit’s scenes bookmark the film, marking important developments in Shirley’s character. His initial appearance amidst Shirley’s impressive collection of exotic objects signals Shirley’s queer cosmopolitan identity, one that later becomes associated with his isolation and estrangement from family and community. During the tour, Vallelonga transforms into Shirley’s protector and friend, and Shirley helps Vallelonga write loving letters to his wife. At the end of the film, it is Shirley who serves as the driver for Vallelonga, helping him keep his promise to join his family for Christmas by driving through a dangerous snowstorm. Afterwards, Shirley at first declines Vallelonga’s invitation to join him for a family dinner. He goes back to his apartment, but only Amit is there to greet him upon his return. Shirley then has a change of heart, dismissing Amit and telling him to go home to his own family. The end of the film shows how Shirley is welcomed into Vallelonga’s holiday gathering, a scene of heterosexual and patriarchal plentitude in which female family members rather than foreign-born servants now supply food and care.
The film frames the Asian American bartender somewhat differently from the other two Asian characters. Lacking his usual diatribe of racial slurs, Vallelonga greets Bobby in a friendly and familiar manner, implying that his prejudices might be assuaged by familiarity and alcohol-fueled camaraderie. Yet along with Amit and the unnamed Chinese man, Bobby also remains without any real back story. Green Book purposefully questions assumptions about racialized servitude in Black/white terms, but keeps the expectation of untroubled “oriental” service intact. Left in representational limbo, the Asian and Asian American characters of Green Book appear only to serve. That their duties mostly go unquestioned shows how Green Book assuages certain anxieties about race and labor even as it interrogates others.
Josephine Lee is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.