Depending on who you ask, Green Book is either the pinnacle of movie magic or a whitewashing sham.
The film, which took home the prize for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, as well as honors for Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor and Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly for Best Original Screenplay, depicts the burgeoning friendship between a black classical pianist and his Italian-American driver as they travel the 1960s segregated South on a concert tour. But while Green Book was an awards frontrunner all season, its road to Oscar night was riddled with missteps and controversies over its authenticity and racial politics. Here’s a primer on the debate surrounding the film.
Green Book focuses on an odd couple: Donald Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga
Green Book is about the relationship between two real-life people: Donald Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Shirley was born in 1927 and grew up in a well-off black family in Florida, where he emerged as a classical piano prodigy: he possessed virtuosic technique and a firm grasp of both classical and pop repertoire. He went on to perform regularly at Carnegie Hall—right below his regal apartment—and work with many prestigious orchestras, like the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. But at a time when prominent black classical musicians were few and far between due to racist power structures, he never secured a spot in the upper echelons of the classical world. (African Americans still only make up 1.8 percent of musicians playing in orchestras nationwide, according to a recent study.)
Vallelonga was born in 1930 to working-class Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx. As an adult he worked as a bouncer, a maître d’ and and a chauffeur, and he was hired in 1962 to drive Shirley on a concert tour through the Jim Crow South. The mismatched pair spent one and a half years together on the road—though it’s condensed to just a couple of months in the film— wriggling out of perilous situations and learning about each other’s worlds. Vallelonga would later become an actor and land a recurring role on The Sopranos.
In the 1980s, Vallelonga’s son, Nick, approached his father and Shirley about making a movie about their friendship. For reasons that are now contested, Shirley rebuffed these requests at the time. According to an interview with Nick Vallelonga in TIME, Shirley gave his blessing—but told him to wait until he died. Don Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley later told TIME in an email: “It was maybe thirty-five years ago when he approached Uncle Donald the first time. He refused to give his permission then. What happened after that, I don’t know.”
Tony Vallelonga and Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013. Nick Vallelonga then approached the screenwriter Brian Currie and director Peter Farrelly, who signed on to the project. In 2017, Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen agreed to play Shirley and Vallelonga, respectively.
Green Book becomes a surprise fan favorite
Green Book premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2018 amid low expectations and received mixed reviews. Many familiar with Farrelly’s past films, comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Shallow Hal co-directed by his brother Bobby Farrelly, did not expect the director to take on a subject like Green Book’s.
But the crowds there couldn’t get enough: the film won the festival’s People’s Choice Award. When the film opened in limited release in November, it earned the rare A+ CinemaScore, based on exit polls. That month, the National Board of Review named it the best film of 2018.
The movie faces critical backlash and stumbles during its press tour
Despite its early success with audiences, many critics were less enthusiastic, pointing out how the film fit a little too neatly into a history of white savior films, from Blood Diamond to The Blind Side. The Root said it “spoon-feeds racism to white people.” The New York Times wrote that the film has “very little that can’t be described as crude, obvious and borderline offensive.” Indiewire labeled Shirley’s character a “Magical Negro,” whose sole purpose in the film was to change a white man for the better.
Brooke Obie, writing for Shadow and Act, also accused the film of erasing the very object it was named after: the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide by Victor H. Green that was continuously updated from the 1930s through the ‘60s. The guide enabled African-American travelers to find hotels, restaurants and other safe spaces across the segregated Jim Crow South. It was well-known in the African-American community and reached a circulation of about 2 million by 1962.
But Obie pointed out that when Green’s book appears in the film, it is a prop mostly handled by Vallelonga: “Black people don’t even touch the Green Book, let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives,” she wrote. And while the guide leads the pair to run-down motels in the film, the real guide would have offered higher-end options to suit Shirley’s refined tastes.
The film’s press tour didn’t help. During a screening in November, Mortensen, who plays Vallelonga, said the N word in an attempt to show how norms have changed since the 1960s. He quickly apologized, and while Ali accepted his apology, many online did not.
Don Shirley’s family responds to Green Book
The floodgates opened even wider in December when Shadow and Act published an interview with the family of Donald Shirley. The family said that Nick Vallelonga and the creative team had completely left them out of the filmmaking process—and that the film was filled with falsehoods. Dr. Maurice Shirley, Donald’s brother, called it a “symphony of lies.”
The family took offense at the film’s depiction of Shirley’s being isolated from both the black community—citing his involvement in the Selma march—and his own family. “There wasn’t a month where I didn’t have a phone call conversation with Donald,” Maurice Shirley said in the interview.
But their most glaring accusation tore into the movie’s central tenet: that Donald Shirley and Tony Vallelonga were even friends. “It was an employer-employee relationship,” Maurice’s wife Patricia said.
The true nature of their relationship remains murky, but an interview outtake with Donald Shirley from the 2011 documentary Lost Bohemia appears to support the strength of their bond. “I trusted him implicitly,” Shirley said of Vallelonga. “Tony, not only was he my driver. We never had an employer-employee relationship. We got to be friendly with one another.”
The family’s criticisms prompted a defense from Nick Vallelonga—who said that Donald Shirley told him not to speak with anyone else about the film before he died—and Farrelly—who said that efforts were made to contact the family before filming. Ali, meanwhile, apologized, and said that he would have consulted family members if he had known that they were alive. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry,’” Donald Shirley’s nephew Edwin said of Ali in Shadow and Act. “’I did the best I could with the material I had.’”
“They could have done better”
In an email to TIME, Edwin Shirley expanded on his disappointment over the film. “The character so superbly played by Mahershala Ali was simply not the Uncle Donald I knew,” he wrote.
Edwin Shirley recalled watching his uncle discuss his musical process with Alvin Ailey and Miles Davis before and after performances in the 1980s. He said that in both instances, his uncle stressed the importance of remaining faithful to a composer’s intent. “He was concerned with not harming the work of others in the process of creating something of his own,” he said.
He wrote that the creation of Green Book runs counter to this ethos: “They made a commercially successful, a popular movie, but in the process, distorted and diminished the life of one of the two main characters. They’ve impaired the integrity of Donald Shirley’s life with events and innuendoes that just run counter to the man I knew.”
He also referenced a line in the film in which Donald Shirley tells Tony that he can do better. “For me, that was the most authentic scene in Green Book, and it’s my response to why I’ve been critical of it. In spite of its box office success, the awards it’s won and may yet win—they could have done better. Given what, and who they had to work with, they could have made a richer, more nuanced character of him, and the film.”
“He gave us back Dr. Shirley”
Michael Kappeyne, a friend of Donald Shirley’s and the executor for his estate, views the portrayal differently. Kappeyne met Shirley in 1997 and soon began taking piano lessons with him in Shirley’s Carnegie apartment. What began as twice-a-month hourly lessons accelerated into weekly meetings that could stretch longer than four hours. Kappeyne also produced Shirley’s last album, Home with Donald Shirley, in 2001.
Kappeyne says that during their lessons, Shirley would tell him stories from his life, including of the trip portrayed in Green Book. “He would relay anecdotes about his driver, Tony, and would tell about the speeding ticket,” Kappeyne said in an interview with TIME, referencing a scene in the movie. “The white cop couldn’t stand that he had a white Italian driver and Donald was the boss. He told that one several times—that was one of his favorites.”
Kappeyne was consulted before filming began about Shirley’s history and posture at the piano. He said that when he saw the film at a friends and family screening, he and other friends of Shirley were “over the moon.” “Dr. Shirley was a very, very complex man. Mahershala really got that part: He got the inner anger, the sense of solitude, the complete dignity he always had and his interest in helping people,” Kappeyne said. “It was like he was back to life. For two hours, he gave us back Dr. Shirley.”
An old friend of Donald Shirley’s remembers
While Shirley and Vallelonga take up most of the film’s screen time, the other two members of the Donald Shirley Trio also appear throughout, in concerts and stops along the road. In the film, they are named Oleg and George. But at the time, Shirley’s real bandmates were the bassist Ken Fricker and the cellist Juri Taht. Both played with Shirley over the course of several decades. Fricker passed away in 2013, but in a phone interview with TIME, his ex-wife, Betty Aiken, recalled spending time with Shirley.
“Don was wonderful. He was always very friendly to me,” Aiken said. She recalled that during one concert, Shirley strayed from his regular repertoire to play “Happy Birthday” for her toddler son.
Like the Shirley family, Aiken refuted the idea that Donald Shirley lived in isolation. “The only problems that I remember were Don being annoyed when people made noise when he was playing. He did not like it when he wasn’t respected,” she said. Aiken also remembered hearing from her husband about the difficulties of the tour depicted in the film: “He said that [Shirley] was very upset with the bathroom arrangements and the bubblers, the drinking fountains. That really upset Don.”
As far as Shirley’s relationship with Vallelonga, Aiken said she had no knowledge one way or the other: “I don’t remember anything about that.”
Attempts to reach Taht were unsuccessful.
The movie faces a rough week after wins at the Golden Globes
Despite the many criticisms, the film glided into the Golden Globes with five nominations and left with three wins, including Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. But what should have been a celebratory night turned awkward after the creative team was ridiculed on Twitter for its overwhelming whiteness.
The next few days resulted in a fresh slew of bad publicity. A tweet by Nick Vallelonga was unearthed in which he supported Donald Trump’s debunked claim that American Muslims had cheered on 9/11:
Vallelonga apologized and directed a personal apology to Ali, who is Muslim. “I am also sorry to my late father who changed so much from Dr. Shirley’s friendship and I promise this lesson is not lost on me,” he wrote. “Green Book is a story about love, acceptance and overcoming barriers, and I will do better.”
Green Book‘s chances at the Oscars
But the firestorm did not slow the film’s awards campaign. Farrelly was nominated for outstanding directorial achievement from the Directors Guild of America; then the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and acting nods for both Ali and Mortensen.
Meanwhile, the film has picked up steam at the box office, raking in its best week ever at the end of January with $7.9 million. The movie, which was made for $23 million, has now made over $61 million overall.
The film has also garnered prominent defenders, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote an essay supporting the film in The Hollywood Reporter. “Unless they’re making a documentary, filmmakers are history’s interpreters, not its chroniclers,” he wrote. “Green Book interprets the sea of historical events to reveal a truth relevant to today: Resist those who would tell you to know your place.”