'The Green Book: Guide to Freedom' Looks Back at Traveling While Black in the Jim Crow Era

Echoes/Redferns
Nat King Cole

Smithsonian Channel will premiere the documentary on Feb. 25

The countdown has begun to the 91st Academy Awards, finally airing this Sunday (Feb. 24). Among the films up for the highest honors is Green Book, with five nominations, including best picture, best actor (Viggo Mortensen) and best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali). The next evening, the Smithsonian Channel will take a deeper dive into the book and true stories that inspired the film.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom takes viewers on a trip back to the Jim Crow era that prompted Victor H. Green to compile The Negro Motorist Green Book. A survivor’s guide in the most literal sense, the book helped African-American travelers more safely steer their way around the challenging indignities and dangers that lurked on the road in pre-civil rights America. The Black History Month offering premieres Monday (Feb. 25, 8 p.m. ET/PT) on the Smithsonian Channel. The one-hour special is also now available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app.

Written and directed by noted documentarian Yoruba Richen, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom examines a horrific chapter in this country’s history -- when even popular entertainers like Nat King Cole were subjected to violence and discrimination -- through the perspectives of various historians and business owners. "Nat King Cole was one of many black performers who had to endure racism and humiliation on the road,” says Richen, whose credits include the GLAAD Media Award-nominated documentary The New Black.

“[Cole’s] experience is emblematic of the African-American experience in this country,” she continues. “Our music and culture is revered and yet racism persists. I doubt the white audiences Nat played for ever thought about the fact that he couldn't sleep or eat in their restaurants after the show. The Green Book allows people to see how black entertainers navigated this country's segregated and potentially dangerous roads, as they traveled to put on terrific shows." 

In the exclusive clip below from The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, Nat King Cole Society president Ron Handy talks about how Cole was attacked onstage by a group of white men during a 1956 performance in Birmingham, Alabama. The clip also cites a story about the attack and its pervasive implications, which appeared in Billboard at the time.