Don Shirley’s Family Questions Green Book’s Accuracy
Shirley’s nephew called the film a “symphony of lies.”
With five Golden Globes nominations and the potential for Oscar nods as well, Green Book is already being touted as an awards season darling. But not everyone is thrilled with Peter Farrelly’s movie about Donald Shirley, a black virtuosic piano player, and his 1962 tour through the Jim Crow South with his racist driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga.
Don Shirley’s family has been vocal about their disapproval of the film, and Edwin Shirley III, Dr. Donald Shirley’s nephew, went so far as to call the depiction of his relative a “symphony of lies” in an interview with the entertainment news site Shadow and Act
Notably, Edwin took issue with the film’s suggestion that Shirley was not in touch with his family and the black community at large, as did Dr. Shirley’s only living brother, Dr. Maurice Shirley. “At that point [in 1962 when the events of the film supposedly take place], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact,” Dr. Maurice Shirley told the publication. Additionally, Shadow and Actpoints out Shirley’s well-known relationships with other African American performers such as Nina Simone and Duke Ellington.
Maurice also had complaints about what seems to be the crux of Green Book‘s plot: the evolution of the friendship between Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga. The film shows their story as a feel-good buddy comedy, but according Shirley’s relatives, that’s a misrepresentation of the truth.
“My brother never considered Tony to be his “friend”; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap),” Maurice Shirley wrote in a letter to Black Entertainment. “This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”
In contrast, Nick Vallelonga, Tony Vallelonga’s son, said “Everything in the film is true,” in an interview with NBC. “The only creative license we took was combining some stories, time-wise, what happened in this state might have happened in another state,” he said.
“But everything was true, and that was really important to me and Pete the director, that we told the truth.”
Despite the contradicting accounts, there’s no denying that the Shirley family was not contacted about the film until after it had been completed. They did not have the opportunity to consult on their relative’s depiction on screen.
“That no one in our family was contacted until AFTER the film was made, could never be misconstrued as an oversight,” Maurice wrote. “If the motive was to tell a true and authentic story, either about “The Green Book” and/or Donald Shirley, they clearly missed the mark!”
Farrelly, too, weighed in on the controversy on the red carpet this week at the Palm Springs Film Festival awards gala.
“They have a right to their opinion, but when we went down that road, we looked into the heirs of Don Shirley, and unfortunately it wasn’t the family. The heirs were friends,” the director told Variety. “When we found out about the family, we tried to embrace them, and they’re not having it right now, and it’s very disappointing.”
He also added that he doesn’t think their input would have changed the movie.
In addition to sending the letter to Black Entertainment, Maurice also shared his thoughts with NPR. After the segment aired, Ali called both Maurice and Edwin to apologize.
“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 told 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.'”
Ali is nominated for a Golden Globe his portrayal of Shirley in the category of Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. His fellow nominees include Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKKKlansman), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Sam Rockwell (Vice).