On November 21, with the controversial new Peter Farrelly film Green Book coming to theaters this holiday weekend, family members of the Black music prodigy who is featured in the film spoke out against his portrayal on NPR’s 1A Movie Club.
Green Book tells the story of Tony Lip, a racist white man played by Viggo Mortensen, who is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley, an exceptional, queer Black musician, played by Mahershala Ali, on a concert tour through the Jim Crow south. The two become unlikely friends, with Lip teaching an isolated Dr. Shirley how to eat fried chicken, listen to Black pop music and bridge the supposed gap between Dr. Shirley and the Black community through music—according to Lip’s version of events, cemented into the screenplay by his son, Nick Vallelonga, who was a co-writer of the film. Beyond entertainment value, in several press appearances for the film, Farrelly and Vallelonga have insisted on the truthfulness of the film.
“Everything in the film is true,” Vallelonga said on NBC Nightly News. “The only creative license we took was combining some stories, time-wise, what happened in this state might have happened in another state. But everything was true, and that was really important to me and Pete the director, that we told the truth.”
On 1A, Dr. Shirley’s family members pushed back hard against that claim and the image of Dr. Shirley as someone who was estranged from his Black family and the Black community in general.
Maurice Shirley, 82, who is Dr. Shirley’s younger and last living brother, spoke to 1A before the segment aired and his response was shared by 1A Movie Club host Joshua Johnson. “(Maurice Shirley) says he refuses to see the film because it is, in his words, ‘full of lies,’” Johnson recounted on air. “He also said that, unlike in the film, Dr. Shirley was not estranged from his family or the Black community. He says (Dr. Shirley) had definitely eaten fried chicken before” meeting Tony Lip.
A niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, also called 1A and left a voicemail for producers before the show aired and it was played during the segment:
“My name is Carol Shirley Kimble. I’m the niece of Don Shirley, supposedly the subject of the movie The Green Book,” she said.
“There was no due diligence done to afford my family and my deceased uncle the respect of properly representing him, his legacy, his worth and the excellence in which he operated and the excellence in which he lived. It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a Black man’s life. My uncle was an incredibly proud man and an incredibly accomplished man, as are the majority of people in my family. And to depict him as less than, and to depict him and take away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished Black man is insulting, at best.”
Shadow and Act’s managing editor Brooke Obie, who wrote the review, Green Book Is A Poorly Titled White Savior Film, also appeared on the show, saying she was “happy” to give the show its first-ever zero-star review for Green Book.
“The main issues for me with Green Book are that it centers a white man’s experience in what should have been, according to the title, a Black story; and it misrepresents the (Negro Motorist) Green Book and it misrepresents Dr. Shirley. So, whether audiences would enjoy the film should be secondary to questions of whether this film harms Dr. Shirley’s legacy, whether it harms his living family members, and whether it harms Black people as a whole.”
She continued, “I think to consistently see our stories and our Black icons filtered through the lens of a racist white person like Tony Lip does nothing to advance the understanding of Black history and only serves to perpetuate white supremacy.”