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'Green Book' Under Fire for Accuracy in Portrayal of Don Shirley

Thursday Jan 10, 2019

The hit film "Green Book" has given director Peter Farrelly new-found respect in Hollywood. But it has also led to greater scrutiny of his past, as this Newsweek story from 1998 that was found yesterday by the website The Cut revealed.

Whether or not his exposing himself twenty years ago will have an affect on his chances for a Best Director Oscar nod remain to be seen; but Farrelly, who (with his brother Bobby) wrote and directed such raunchy comedies as "There Is Something About Mary" and "Shallow Hal" is on the fast-track to such an honor. Just this Best Director nominations from the Director's Guild and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), both good harbingers that an Oscar nom is in his future.

But the film is quickly becoming as controversial as last year's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri." "Green Book" follows the unlikely friendship between closeted African American musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony 'Lip' Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), the man he hired to be his chauffeur and bodyguard on a tour of the South in 1962.

That it was co-written by Nick Valleglonga, Tony's son (along with Farrelly and Brian Currie) is said to give it authenticity, but it was revealed when the film was released this past November that the writing team never consulted Shirley's living relatives beforehand. Maurice Shirley, Don's surviving, 86-year old younger brother, refused to see the film, calling it "full of lies" when asked to comment by NPR's 1A Movie Club host Joshua Johnson. "He also said that, unlike in the film, Dr. Shirley was not estranged from his family or the Black community," Johnson said. "He says (Dr. Shirley) had definitely eaten fried chicken before." (In one of the film's most viewed scenes, Tony Lip introduces Shirley to eating fried chicken.)

Carol Shirley Kimble, Shirley's niece, also spoke to 1A: "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."

In a report from Vanity Fair, Farrelly said that he attempted to locate family members before shooting of the film began, but got no responses. When asked about this issue, he said: "I wish I could have talked to the family earlier. But I don't think it would have changed the story, because we were talking about a two-month period [of Vallelonga and Shirley on the road together]. Those were the only people that were there. . . . I would have just let [the family] know as a courtesy that we are making this movie."

Aside for veracity, the film has come under fire for what is its "Magical Negro" problem, which was defined by IndieWire as a phenomena in American buddy comedies that give equal screen time to both characters "except when one of those characters is black, and exists almost entirely to help transform his white companion on a quest toward salvation. That's the 'Magical Negro' problem, and 'Green Book' falls right into the trap."

In the film Shirley is driven through the deep South by Vallelonga in a reversal on the "Driving Miss Daisy" meme in which the racist learns to be a better human being by their time together on the road. Indiewire cites such films as "Ghost," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" as examples.

"The 'Magical Negro"' archetype is typically rooted in a white screenwriter's ignorance of any genuine African-American experience," the IndieWire story puts it. "He's typically patient, sometimes wise, and usually has some sort of magical power. His ultimate function is to help the white protagonist overcome some major character flaw."

Addressing the "white savior" allegations in a Hollywood Reporter story, Vallelonga says, "I never thought that he [Lip] was 'saving' anything — the only savior I know is Jesus. I think it's kind of insulting to Mahershala Ali because he's on top of that character, how he's portrayed and how he comes across, and he would not have let anything go by." He continues, "I could have just changed [Shirley's] name, but I said, 'No. I want people to buy his music, I want people to know about him.' I did this with love." And, he adds, "The family was all invited to the premieres, and went. Then I finally met a couple of them, who told me they loved it."

"Green Book" is currently in theaters. It will be released February 19 on DVD and streaming services on March 5. Ballots are due for Oscar nominations on January 14 with nominations announced on January 22 and the awards ceremony on February 24.


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