People aren’t apt to believe a story of inequality told by a Black person, but they will if it’s backed up by a white person. Perhaps this dynamic will be at work once again with the newly minted Oscar winner Green Book, now that a white musician who worked with Dr. Donald Shirley has come out against the film.
According to the Toronto Star, cellist Richard Armin called the film “a complete lie,” echoing the sentiments Shirley’s family had about the film when Shadow and Act exclusively interviewed them in December.
Armin was adamant about his feelings in his interview with the paper. “I feel betrayed,” he said. “It almost brought me to tears.”
Armin worked with Donald Shirley as a member of the Don Shirley Trio for eight months in 1964 and also acted as his driver during that time.
Whereas the Shirley family have later said they are proud of Mahershala Ali’s success despite their dislike of Green Book, Armin finds fault with Ali as well as the film. To Armin, Ali’s portrayal of Shirley as a snobby diva who has separated himself from Black culture flies contrary to his memories of the real Shirley, who he said was always aware of pop culture, Black music and Black musicians, just as the Shirley family told Shadow and Act.
“For me, I had never encountered anybody like this in terms of intellect and loquacity,” he said. “He was a great talker, a beautiful talker. I could never tire of his talking and he talked incessantly. He read me the entire works of James Baldwin while we were driving. He was filled with beautiful accounts of Black history. He had been close friends with Baldwin before Baldwin moved to France.”
Armin also said that Shirley “educated me on Black culture and how the understanding of culture is limitless in terms of race,” referencing the time when he drove Shirley through the southern half of the U.S., where they were often invited to the homes of Black fans of Shirley and his music. This also echoes with Dr. Shirley’s documentarian, Josef Astor, told Shadow and Act in December.
“He’d ask me, ‘Oh, well, do you know about Paul Robeson?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I know about Paul Robeson.’ He’d say, ‘But did you know about the man’s life?’ And there’s a silence, and he says, ‘Well, Josef, your education system failed you if you don’t know about that man’s life.’ And he’d go on and school me,” Astor shared with Shadow and Act.
“My biggest complaint is that there was no research done,” Armin said of the film. “There couldn’t have been. Whoever wrote this could not have known Don Shirley or even been in his presence.”
During Green Book‘s awards tour, Shirley’s family called the film “a symphony of lies,” alleging that Shirley never wanted a film about his life made by Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s son. They also state that the film doesn’t portray Shirley as he was in life, and it exaggerates the relationship he had with Lip to an inaccurate degree.
“You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony! Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time,” Maurice Shirley told Shadow and Act back in December. Armin corroborates this personality trait of Dr. Shirley’s in his Toronto Star interview:
“Armin failed to pick up Shirley for a post-concert party — he accepts the blame, but says he’d been given wrong info — and an enraged Shirley fired him on the spot. Armin was later forced to sign a termination agreement with a lawyer, where he received his final $250 cash payment.
‘I was devastated,’ Armin recalls of the firing.
‘But I learned how this (music) business is done. You screw up, and you’re done. And I have no hard feelings towards Don. My heart goes out to his family.’”