A new documentary on the Green Book, the inspiration behind the Oscar movie

The Smithsonian Channel are taking a timely look at The Negro Motorist Green Book, the historical travel guide that was partially the inspiration behind the Oscar-winning movie Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom will highlight some of the stories of black travellers who used the guide to explore the USA. First published in 1936, it was published annually until 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act and the end of the Jim Crow laws that enforced legal segregation between black and white people.

The laws meant most places in the USA were off-limits to black people but that didn’t stop the desire to travel. The result was the Green Book, a guide to safe places to stop for gas, food, vehicle repairs and to stay. At first it covered just New York, but then expanded to all of the USA and later included Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.

Cover of the 1961 Green Book. Image by NYPL Public Domain

The documentary is created by New York filmmaker Yoruba Richen who had never even heard of the guide before being asked to take on the project. During the course of her research, she discovered what she called a secret road map and a parallel universe for black travellers.

One place they examine is the fascinating history of  Idlewild, a resort in Michigan which grew to be one of the epicentres of black tourism in the 1950s. With many black-owned businesses, a vibrant nightlife with big names like Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington and 3000 acres of safe space to holiday in, Idlewild in its heyday was unparalleled in US tourism history.

A group of people vacation in Idlewild in 1964. Photo by The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty

If you’d like to read the Green Book yourself, the New York Public Library has digitized the guides and even created an online tool where you can map out a road trip using the information in the books.

The Smithsonian Channel has previewed the documentary in 18 cities already as part of Black History Month and it will premiere on its TV channel on 25 February at 8pm. You can also watch it from providers such as iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.

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