Green Book has been hailed as one of the best films of the year — it even earned an impressive score on Rotten Tomatoes with 95% of audiences saying the loved the film.
Based on the relationship between Dr. Donald Shirley, an accomplished pianist, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, his former driver, Green Book depicts a heart-warming story about two men from vastly different backgrounds, who end up forming an unshakable bond.
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But according to Dr. Shirley’s family, the movie is based on a “symphony of lies.”
“It was rather jarring,” Dr. Shirley’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, told Shadow and Act editor Brooke Obie in an exclusive interview.
In Green Book, Dr. Shirley, played by Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali, is depicted as a reclusive musical genius, who is disconnected from the Black community and estranged from his family. In the film, Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) introduces Dr. Shirley to “Black” things like fried chicken and Little Richard, even telling the acclaimed pianist in one scene, “I’m Blacker than you.”
“That was very hurtful,” Edwin said of that portrayal. “That’s just 100% wrong.”
In real life, according to his family, Dr. Shirley was not only friends with prominent musicians like Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan, but he was also active in the Civil Rights Movement, attending the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And while the film declared Dr. Shirley was educated in Europe, his family said he was shaped by his time at historically Black institutions.
“The idea that he studied in Europe as a child—of course, because of his ability to play, that was believed. So my understanding was, that was a contrivance of the label at the time, not his,” Edwin told Shadow and Act. “That was part of what was put on the back of his album covers, basically to compartmentalize him and make him acceptable in areas where a Black man from a Black school wouldn’t have got any recognition at all.”
Dr. Shirley’s family also insisted that the men were not as close as depicted in the movie, but also that Dr. Shirley didn’t want Vallelonga’s son, who is a screenwriter on the film, to tell his story.
“I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years, my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it,” Edwin recalled. “He flatly refused.”
Faced with the criticism of Dr. Shirley’s family, Ali apologized for his part in the film.
“I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally. He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” Edwin shared with Shadow and Act. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’”
The film’s director Peter Farrelly, also claimed that he thought Dr. Shirley didn’t have a lot of living family members either.
When asked by ESSENCE earlier this year about what he’d say to critics of Green Book, Ali said that they are “entitled to their opinion.”
“We made a film abut two gentleman who are very different, from very different worlds,” the actor continued, “and the Green Book was key to them to be able to even go on the journey.”
“If that is not centered enough for their personal opinion…I’m not going to argue with them, but that’s what we chose to do and we stand by it,” Ali concluded.
Green Book has been nominated for five Golden Globe awards, and is currently a front running in the Oscar nomination race. Unfortunately, it appears to not be a true representation of Dr. Shirley’s life or the Negro Motorist Green book — two subjects that deserve to be fully explored.