Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 10, 2019
There are two ways to come at “Green Book,” the new biopic about Don Shirley, the renowned African American pianist and composer who died in 2013. The movie purports to tell the “inspired-by-a-true story” account of Shirley’s 1962 concert tour through the south with his jazz trio, at a time when Jim Crow restrictions were in full force. Shirley hires a New York Italian-American bouncer and chauffeur nicknamed Tony Lip (real name Tony Vallelonga), who is portrayed by actor Viggo Mortensen as a comically lunkheaded racist but sensitive and strong family man.
Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and Tony head down below the Mason-Dixon line with the famous “Green Book” in hand. This was a guide book, developed in 1936 and updated annually for three decades, detailing where Blacks could safely shop, eat, gas up and use the facilities while traveling through the south.
The script, written in part by Nick Villelonga, Tony’s son, is a loving portrait of a complex, flawed but ultimately decent man who comes to respect Shirley’s musical talent and courageously principled stand against prejudice and color barriers.
Shirley is portrayed by Ali as a brilliant but cold and aloof man who gradually warms to Tony Lip’s humor and earthiness. Seen in these simple terms, the movie is a joy to watch and listen to, especially Ali’s subtle performance of the proud musician and Mortensen’s delightful portrayal of the lovable bodyguard. Shirley’s music, a wonderful hybrid of Bach and jazz, is an added bonus.
But there’s a problem with the movie’s accuracy. According to Shirley’s surviving brother, Maurice, the movie is “a symphony of lies.” In the movie Shirley claims he is alienated from his family, and the end credits claim the two men—musician and driver—developed a lifelong friendship that only ended with Tony’s death in 2013. (Shirley died three months later.) But Maurice says Don talked with his siblings all the time, and Tony was no more of a friend than many other chauffeurs who were hired and fired by his brother.
More disturbing are charges that the movie is another in a long line of films with a “Magical Negro” problem, in which Black characters exist to help transform their benighted White companions. “Let it be resolved in 2019,” writes Salon critic Melanie McFarland: “no more movies about race that center on White people’s feelings.”
Yes and no. Moviegoers can regret the inaccuracies and Hollywood treatment and still come away deeply impressed by Don Shirley’s talents (“worthy of gods,” said Igor Stravinsky) and legacy. Maybe that’s the best way to enjoy “Green Book.” Then go to YouTube and enjoy the many clips of the real Don Shirley, in performance and at home.