As people continue to debate over whether or not Green Book deserved to win Best Picture at the Oscars, what often gets ignored or lost in the discussion is this question: Will anyone step up and make a biographical movie about world-renowned pianist Dr. Don Shirley? Regardless of how people feel about how authentic the Green Book story might be, what most people can agree on is that he had an interesting life that’s worthy of its own movie.
Green Book is about one aspect of Shirley’s life: his 1962 road trip with Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a New York City nightclub bouncer whom Shirley hired to be his driver during Shirley’s U.S. concert tour that included stops in the segregated Deep South. (In the movie, Mahershala Ali plays Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen plays Vallelonga.)
The movie’s title is based on the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a travel guide listing places that black people could go to that weren’t “whites only” establishments. The story in the film is about how Vallelonga and Shirley’s longtime friendship started because of that road trip. (Vallelonga and Shirley died in 2013.) Vallelonga’s son Nick co-wrote the movie’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which is told from the Vallelonga family’s perspective and is based on Tony’s letters and recordings.
Just like the Italian-American Tony Vallelonga, Shirley was also the child of immigrants (Shirley’s parents were Jamaican), but Shirley’s shared experience of having immigrant family members is never mentioned in the movie.
Just like Tony Vallelonga, Shirley was married to a woman, but Shirley’s marriage ultimately ended in divorce. This failed marriage, Shirley’s estrangement from his family and his sexual attraction to men are mentioned briefly in Green Book. Moviegoers never find out if Shirley (who was considered a musical prodigy) ever fell in love, why he was estranged from his family, and what were pivotal points in his life, other than those that involved Vallelonga.
If a biopic about Don Shirley ever gets made, it begs these questions:
Who Gets to Tell the Story?
Nick Vallelonga has said in interviews that Shirley requested that his story only be told after he died and without the involvement of Shirley’s estranged family. (Shirley’s family members are not heirs to his estate, and several of his family members have publicly blasted Green Book by claiming the movie is highly inaccurate about Shirley.) Are estranged family members the most reliable people to guide the public opinion of a family member who didn’t want anything to do with them? This is a dilemma that will have to be addressed by anyone who’s willing to make the Don Shirley story into a movie.
What Responsibility Do the Filmmakers Have to Include the LGBTQ Community?
Shirley was a member of the LGBTQ community, whether he wanted to publicly admit it or not, and how he dealt with all types of prejudices is a story that needs to be told. It would behoove any Shirley biographer to consult with people who truly knew about Shirley’s sexuality, as well as include input from LGBTQ groups such as GLAAD to make sure that LGBTQ subject matter is handled with authenticity and respect.
Should the Race of the Filmmakers Matter?
The filmmakers behind Green Book (including director/writer/producer Peter Farrelly) might never really explain why they decided to have a predominately white team to make Green Book, a movie whose emotional core revolves around how racism affects black people. Best Picture nominees BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, which also explored issues of racism against blacks, had a racially mixed team of filmmakers and didn’t get the type of “whitewashing” accusations that Green Book has. The lesson of this controversy that needs to be learned is if there’s a story to be told about a black person affected by racism, then it’s not just “politically correct” to have a racially diverse team of people to tell the story, it’s also socially responsible and a wise business move.
Should a Don Shirley Movie Be a Feature Film or a Documentary?
Green Book co-star Ali won an Oscar for playing Shirley, so any biopic about Shirley will be under enormous pressure to fill that role. That’s why it might be better to do a documentary about Shirley. A documentary wouldn’t be inclined to bring fiction into the mix, the way biographical feature films often do to make the story fit into a tidy narrative. If a movie about Shirley ever gets made, let’s hope the filmmakers remember something that he said in a 1982 interview with the New York Times: “The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”