In a disappointing but not altogether surprising left-turn that soured one of the most inclusive, entertaining Oscar ceremonies in memory, Green Book, a racial reconciliation fantasy written for white people, by white people secured the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Green Book also won awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor in Supporting Role, granted to Mahershala Ali for playing Dr. Don Shirley. That Shirley, the black piano-playing virtuoso around whom the plot revolves, is considered the supporting character in this film tells you almost everything you need to know.
That Shirley’s family have vehemently objected to the film tells you the rest.
The missteps of the movie and its filmmakers are well documented, but because this has been a singularly awful February, there was one final parting shot before we collectively agreed to banish this moment—and this movie—from our memory.
Shortly after accepting the final statuette for “Best Picture,” Green Book screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen), was asked by reporters about the controversy surrounding the film.
“If you’re discussing the Don Shirley family thing, that falls on me; but Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone,” Vallelonga said.
“He protected his private life and all the things, other things about him, miraculous things about him,” Vallelonga said of the genre-bending musician. “He told me, ‘If you’re going to tell the story, you tell it from your father, me. No one else. Don’t speak to anyone else. That’s how you have to make it.’ And, also, he told me, ‘Don’t make it until after I pass away.’”
Vallelonga added that he wishes he could have reached out to the Shirley family.
“I didn’t even know they really existed until after we were making the film,” he said.
Sir. How do you give the “I don’t know her” treatment to an entire family?
Not a barbershop quartet of lies. Not a marching band of lies. Not a drumline of lies. Not even a Prince guitar solo of lies. A whole symphony!
Vallelonga’s account also appears to contradict statements Shirley’s family gave to Shadow and Act in December. Don Shirley’s brother, Maurice, and his nephew Edwin Shirley III told the publication that Don rejected Vallelonga’s movie pitch.
“I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years, my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it,” Edwin said. “He flatly refused.”
Edwin went on to say he tried to convince his uncle into accepting the pitch, saying he could be involved in the film. According to him, Don held fast.
“I said to him at the time, ‘Well, perhaps you can set some conditions whereby you can be involved if they agree to certain things in terms of control for you,’” Edwin said. “And what [Don] said at the time was, ‘No matter what they say to me now, I will not have any control over how I am portrayed.’”