Green Book is a narrative drama, and the Smithsonian Channel project is a documentary; there are, understandably, many reasons why their approaches to the subject might diverge. But even so, the differences between the films’ respective representations of The Green Book, and of black American experiences, underscore the importance of Richen’s approach. Where Farrelly’s framing of racism as an exclusively southern problem is as familiar as it is misguided, Richen substantively engages the complexity of black life. Her documentary is notable not simply because it explains the origin of Green’s book. The Green Book: Guide to Freedom also challenges the paradigm its corollary adopts: an exhaustingly insular outlook in which black interiority is an abstraction. By depicting the threats black people faced when both migrating and traveling—while also emphasizing the innovation birthed amid these struggles—Guide to Freedom serves as a corrective.
For viewers who are genuinely invested in learning about the historical text and how black people have navigated everyday travel since the early 20th century, the documentary neatly offers a wealth of knowledge in a compressed window. It also bolsters the information with archival footage. “We went to the National Museum of African American History [and Culture] in D.C., and we got to see some of their home-movie archives,” Richen said of the production process. “And when we saw these archives, I was just like, Oh, this is how I want to tell this story. If we can tell this story as much [as possible] through home-movie archives of traveling, of being on the road, I think that would be a really beautiful way to tell the story, because [most Americans] haven’t seen that footage, but also we can create a road trip for the viewer.”
The Green Book: Guide to Freedom also includes commentary from figures such as the author and historian Candacy Taylor, who has been researching The Negro Motorist Green Book since she was commissioned by a travel-guide company to write about Route 66 several years ago. While reading through existing books about the iconic highway, which stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, Taylor encountered a glut of nostalgic musings that didn’t account for how dangerous travel was—and often still is—for black people.
Read more: Why black Americans are not nostalgic for Route 66
In the documentary’s introductory scene, Taylor offers a concise explanation of the directory she’s devoted years to studying. “The Green Book was a great way to understand how you could get from A to B safely,” she says. “And even though it wasn’t all about struggle and fear, there was a seriousness to traveling while black, and there were severe consequences.”
Taylor’s upcoming book, Overground Railroad, is just one part of her Green Book Project, for which she’s interviewed descendants of business owners with listings in Green’s directories. According to Taylor’s research, only 3 percent of the businesses are still in operation, but she’s gleaned a wealth of insights from their legacies: “I found incredibly inspiring stories … I interviewed Martin Luther King’s barber, who used to cut his hair at the bottom of the Ben Moore Hotel, which is a Green Book site,” Taylor said when we spoke over the phone. “And [King’s barber] was there during the Montgomery bus boycott, when it was being strategized at the Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery. So that was a pinch-me moment, where I’m like, Oh my god, he and King were very close. And he told me a lot of great stories.”
“Their interviews will be archived forever at the Library [of Congress],” Taylor added. “So that feels good—to capture this piece of history before we lose it, because we’ve lost already so much of it.”