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Whose Story? Whose History?

THE GREEN BOOK tells the story of two New Yorkers in 1962, Don Shirley, a world renown African-American pianist who lives in a beautifully adorned apartment above Carnegie Hall; the other a white man – Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, an ill-educated bouncer at the Copacabana. Mr. Shirley has undertaken a concert tour that will include numerous performances across the segregated Deep South. Unwilling to endure the indignity of segregated train cars, he “auditions” numerous candidates for the position of chauffeur to drive him in a private car from one town to another. Candidate after candidate fails, but Tony Lip, brutish and monosyllabic though he may be, displays a self-awareness, resourcefulness and inner strength that convinces Mr. Shirley that he is the man for the job.

The eponymous “green book” was a booklet published by a black man, Victor Hugo Green, during the era of Jim Crow laws, to enable black travelers to find lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that would serve them along the road. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made the Green Book unnecessary and publication ceased in 1966.

But, the Green Book is only incidental to the main thrust of the movie. The real story is the relationship that developed between the two men, each a prisoner in an emotional and psychological box of his own making, the restrictions of those boxes characterized by the causal racism of Mr. Vallelongo on one side, and by the practiced distance and classist arrogance of Mr. Shirley on the other, all of it exacerbated by the realities of traveling through the segregated South of 1963 America. What happens between both men after that is as predictable as the sun rising and setting.

I doubt many African-Americans watching this film will experience the “power,” “insight” or “engagement” some white film critics have said this film evokes; not because of a lack of artistry or expertise on the part of the filmmakers – both are on impressive display - but because The Green Book does not tell us anything we don’t already know. The film, in spite of its noble intentions, does not speak to black people. It speaks to white people, whose blind eye, ill-constructed education system or deliberate ignorance across decades of history, have allowed them to remain blind to the torments, large and small, that have been visited upon people of color in this country since its inception, by fiat, law and the raw, naked use of power. The movie protests a humanity, dignity and moral authority black Americans already know we have. Scene after scene in the film, while cloaked in the general veneer of accepted truth, offers people of color no insight. For many whites, however, The Green Book may prove to be revelation. And, perhaps, that is the best that can be hoped for. If the film manages lifts the veil of ignorance or insensitivity of bigotry from one heretofore uninformed brow, then perhaps it has done some good. But, for many black people, watching this film will only cause them to shake their heads once more, and wonder what all the fuss was about. But black artists, historians, journalists and scholars will wonder at the colossal misrepresentation of Don Shirley himself. Mahershala Ali is portraying a Don Shirley who never existed, and that one single fact lies at the center of the disappointment many Afro-Americans feel about this film.

Don Shirley is written as a musical child prodigy who grew up impoverished in a broken home, estranged from his only sibling and very nearly in complete ignorance of what the film describes as “black culture,” from the rituals of the Afro-American church, to the blues to jazz to fried chicken.

The real Don Shirley was born into a well-to-do, highly educated and sophisticated family. His mother and father were professionals who remained together their entire married lives. He had several siblings with whom he remained close all of his days. He was the recipient of several degrees, including a doctorate. He was well-traveled, playing concerts the world over and, as a result, learned to speak several languages. His musical virtuosity ran the gamut from European classical music (Brahms, Bach Beethoven, Chopin, etc.) to Gershwin to Ellington, Strayhorn, Basie, black Spirituals and the Blues the movie implies he was distanced from. His repertoire exhibited examples of all these compositions in many of the concerts in which he appeared. Articles about him were regularly printed in the press, particularly the black press. I should know, because that is how I first learned of him in the 1960s as a student at Howard University.

The film is based on a book written by Mr. Vallelongo, chronicling the short period of time he spent as Mr. Shirley’s driver. After Mr. Vallelongo’s death, his son, Nicholas, endeavored to adapt the book into a screenplay and was later joined by the film director, Peter Farrelly, who co-wrote the final version and directed the film. Neither the book nor the film are actually about Mr. Shirley. They are about the effect Mr. Shirley had on Mr. Vallelonga and reflects how Mr. Vallelonga saw Mr. Shirley. It is Mr. Vallelonga’s character that takes every major initiative in the film. Don Shirley is reduced to being a character that only reacts and seldom has any real agency in the story. But, I get it. The actual Don Shirley, described in the paragraph above, could easily have taken over the story; that Don Shirley would have been the Protagonist, and that was not the intention of the filmmakers.

The story takes place over a period of time covering a matter of months, less than a year, during which time the actual Mr. Shirley would have been consumed with press meetings, rehearsals, social outings and pre-production routines in every town and city they visited. There would not have been much “down time” for friendly tetes a tetes. I’ve read elsewhere that Mr. Shirley was known to change his drivers quite regularly. Nicholas Vallelongo and Mr. Farrelly apparently felt that the real Don Shirley might overpower the story they wanted to tell, so they took advantage of dramatic license to fabricate a “Don Shirley” whose weaknesses and shortcomings might make him more “equal” to Tony Lip, thus giving their story more “balance.” The result of the new balance is the creation of a series of circumstances in which Tony Lip can more effectively become the story’s hero.

As a result, the screenplay has opened itself up to controversy, particularly from Mr. Shirley’s family, for the manner in which he is portrayed onscreen. But, all of these comments or complaints are directed toward the motion picture the filmmakers did not make. Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt and talk about the film that they did complete:

Mr. Shirley is required to be an adult black male in the early 1960s who has made a decision to go on a concert tour in the deep south in response to an (actual) ugly incident in which a racist gang attacked and severely beat the singer Nat “King” Cole after a performance n the Deep South in which he challenged the segregated seating accommodations of the audience that came to see him play. That incident occurred five years before the action of the film takes place. Don Shirley not only would have consulted with Cole, but also with any number of other black entertainers who had traveled South before him to fully understand what he would have to confront. The clause allowing him not to play before segregated audiences, would have been negotiated into his contract before he left New York. The singer Lena Horne already had done so by this time. Further, there were other incidents in the movie in which “Don Shirley” seems completely caught offguard by the rules of segregation when his hiring of Tony Lip to ferry him from point to point implies he already has a complete understanding of the hardships he will face, not to mention his ownership of the Green Book itself.

Further, “Mr. Shirley’s” homosexuality is glaringly hinted at in the film, but never explored, thus dismissing an important part of the character’s humanity and allowing a fuller explanation of who he really is. His estrangement from his family (which never existed) is cited as a major character flaw, and played up several times, but the ending of the film requires him to make a choice that brings the two men closer together for a great feel good moment, but is completely at odds with one of the very solutions the film infers is necessary for Mr. Shirley to become whole again.

And that is the problem: Making things whole. Seeing the whole story, which in the end, this movie does not. Missing the scene that allows Mr. Shirley to become “whole” again. Missing the significance of The Green Book, and what it meant to African Americans in that long ago era, and why it is an integral part of the African American Museum in Washington, DC today. Unfortunately, in the end, The Green Book tells us a story from the point of view of the witness, not the injured party, and we are left with questions, and wholly inadequate answers.

Richard Wesley

16 January 2019

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