‘Green Book’ producer for commencement speaker sparks criticism

The Oscar-winning film has been criticized for its portrayal of race issues.

Farrah Mina

Some University of Minnesota students are critical of the decision to have “Green Book” producer and University alumnus Jim Burke as the College of Liberal Arts’ undergraduate commencement speaker this spring.

CLA chose Burke as the speaker for the May 19 commencement ceremony after reviewing a list of notable University alumni. The speaker’s availability is often the largest factor in choosing who the speaker will be, said University spokesperson Caitlin Hurley.

“Green Book,” which won the Oscar for best picture last month, tells the story of a white man who becomes friends with a black musician as they journey through the deep South in the 1960s. It has been widely criticized for its portrayal of race issues. 

“’Green Book’ is a white savior film,” said Becca Mayo, a fifth-year University student studying cinema and media culture. “It allows and encourages a state of cognitive dissonance for white audiences between their perceived sense of self and racism.” 

Brad Stiffler, an instructor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, said the main issue with the film is its depiction of interpersonal relationships as antidotes to racism. Hollywood films commonly simplify systemic and institutional racial problems by portraying them as individual prejudices that can be overcome, Stiffler said.

“It’s something that this film especially seems to fall in that trap of reducing the complexity and the seriousness of race and race relations in the U.S. to this sort of caricatured idea of ‘Can these two people be friends or not?’” he said.

Stiffler said another element used in films about race is setting them in the past to induce feelings of progress, a tactic that “Green Book” seems to use.

Film studies coordinator Graeme Stout also remarked on the film being set in the 1960s. “It’s taking us back to a period in American racial history and racial conflict in the Civil Rights Movement that we kind of look back on and say, ‘Oh, we’ve come so far,’” Stout said. “It’s always about white salvation.” 

Stout said he was not surprised when “Green Book” won best picture. “It’s a feel-good, happy film that suggests, ‘Hey, racism is over in an era of [President] Donald Trump,” Stout said. It checked all the boxes that the academy seems to love: it’s American, historical, and carries a redemptive message, he added.

But criticism toward Burke as the commencement speaker is not limited to his involvement in “Green Book.” 

Kylee Mattson, a December graduate who will be walking at this year’s graduation ceremony, criticized another one of Burke’s films: “The Descendants.” The film, which was set in Hawaii, did not star any native Hawaiians.

“I hope [Burke] sees the diverse graduating class our school has and tries to incorporate that diversity into future movies,” Mattson said.

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Burke’s appointment as commencement speaker. CLA did not hire Burke as the commencement speaker.