Why is “The Green Book” So Popular in China?

Why is a film that touches on America's history of racism so wildly popular in China?


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The Green Book is an incredible success in China. Within weeks of its March 1st release date, the movie had already accrued an $25 million. On China’s Maoyan (think Rotton Tomatoes), the movie is ranked 9.6/10. 

Why is this film- one that is distinctly about America’s history of racism- so popular in China? 

The Green Book tells the story of the “real-life” friendship between working-class, tough-knuckled Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American New Yorker, and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an extremely respected Black classical pianist. 

Set in 1962, Don hires Tony to drive him across the country as he plays at various high-class establishments. Tony was racist. However, as Don and Tony’s employer-employee relationship transforms into friendship, Tony reassesses his prejudices.

The movie follows their journey through the American South. Tony becomes almost a de-facto protector to Don, as they face a series of hideous racist encounters. 

Ultimately, the Green Book is about the power of friendship in bridging racial and economic divides, fighting racism, and the extreme racism that Black Americans faced in the 20th century. 

The film won three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali). It made $85.1 million in the box office and received rave reviews. 

In the U.S., however, the film also received strong criticism for its oversimplification of racial politics and the fact that the life of an accomplished Black man centers around the personal growth of a White ‘savior’ male character. It is a ‘feel-good’, optimistic movie about a not-so-feel-good reality. 

We have seen this narrative play out in countless, equally-successful films- think of Driving Miss Daisy (1989), or the more recent The Upside (2017). Wesley Morris, film critic for the New York Times, wrote how The Green Book reproduces a certain kind of “racial reconciliation fantasy,” in which “the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart”. 

In China, however, the movie was met with high praise. It has become the second highest-grossing Oscar ‘Best Picture’ winner ever- just behind 1997’s Titanic. Writers on the movie review website Douban wrote about how “the storytelling is simple yet touching… the journey connects people of different skin colors, classes, and cultural backgrounds together.” Another reviewer 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.” 

There are a number of possible reasons why The Green Book has been so particularly successful in China. One theory proposed by The Hollywood Reporter is that Alibaba Pictures, owned by China’s richest man, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, was one of the film’s largest producers. Echo Huang, a writer at Quartzy, says that it might be because Chinese people are interested in, but largely ignorant about, the history of racial segregation in the United States. Echo writes, “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 it might just be that Chinese viewers found the film to be a compelling story of complex characters that ends by giving you a warm fuzzy feeling and an optimistic view towards race-relations. Ultimately, this is the same reason why so many people loved The Green Book in the U.S. It is also the same reason why the film was so critically appraised.

This does not mean that Chinese viewers are totally ignorant of American racial histories, or somehow deficient by not holding similar discussions like the ones in the U.S. In fact, the response to The Green Book in the U.S. was mostly positive. This is because ultimately movies like The Green Book convert the complicated and uncomfortable subject of racial politics into an understandable, easily-digestible and heart-warming fantasy. 

Again, this is not what necessarily attracted Chinese viewers, and it’s wrong to criticize Chinese audiences for accepting a simplified narrative, especially when this is exactly what The Green Book was designed to do. But, as Echo Huang discusses, China is becoming an increasingly diverse nation, especially as the Belt and Road Initiative is taking off. Recently, cross-cultural awareness in China has become a hot topic, such as when CCTV faced criticism for putting a Chinese actress in blackface on one of the nation’s most widely viewed TV programs. 

Perhaps the popularity of The Green Book in China reflects this increasingly prominent and complex discussion of cross-cultural politics. And perhaps it also reflects, as it does in the U.S., a desire to simplify this complexity. 


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Ezra Kohn

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