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Photo courtesy of Participant Media / IMDb

Why Is a Movie About Don Shirley Not About Don Shirley?

When Julia Roberts read out the name Green Book as the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards this past Sunday, the crowd seemed more confused than anything.

First off, Alfonso Cuaron had just won Best Director for Roma which is typically a precursor for winning Best Picture. Additionally, despite picking up awards in categories such as Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, Green Book had an especially controversial press tour and awards season. However, the disappointment does not simply lie within this controversy but with the lackluster content deemed worthy for Best Picture of the year, particularly within a category with such strong contenders.

Green Book tells the story of the relationship between African-American pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver and bodyguard Tony Vallelonga. Despite high hopes for the film, it had multiple unfortunate instances during the promotion of the movie that were revealing as to why there are larger structural issues within the film.

In discussing the context for which the film is made, Viggo Mortensen, who plays the film’s protagonist Tony Vallelonga, used the n-word in trying to make a point on how the word is no longer used. There was immediate outrage by his co-star, Mahershala Ali, as well as members of the public and he ultimately apologized for using the word in any context. In addition, Nick Vallelonga, who wrote the film based on his father’s experiences, had written anti-Muslim tweets in response to comments Donald Trump made about 9/11. He also immediately apologized, particularly to Mahershala Ali, as he is Muslim, and the public seemed to move on.

Then, Don Shirley’s estate asserted that the depiction of his relationship with his family as well as Tony was completely false. Shirley’s brother shared that Tony was never more than an employee to Shirley, not even close to a dear friend. The family refuted claims that Tony and his son visited Shirley shortly before his death and were insulted by what the films suggest.

This may not seem to be as big of an issue considering every artistic rendition of an event exaggerates certain qualities to make the content more interesting. However, the film’s marketing and a significant amount of emotional value rest on the “true story” of these two men whose relationship overcame racial and cultural divides. The neglect of consultation with Don Shirley’s family is particularly troubling because a movie that is about the supposed protection and uplift of a Black man actively silences those who knew him best.

Even if you can move past this controversy by separating the artist from the art, the content of the film in comparison to its competitors is equally problematic. Green Book attempts to paint Tony’s particular brand of racism as less offensive than that of the South. They seem to think that just because he wouldn’t attack a person of color in a bar like many others do as the pair travels the South, his racism is more palatable.

In one of the earlier scenes, he throws away glasses that were used previously used by two Black construction workers. This is an action that does not suggest Tony could or would be changed by getting to know a person of color, as the film suggests. Even through his act of throwing the glasses away he wins a hotdog eating competition, protects his family, and is an overall charismatic man. The film suggests that sure, Tony is kind of racist but isn’t he also such a good guy? His prejudice is not intertwined enough with his character to actually create layers but actually just seems to try and compartmentalize his actions.

In addition, there is no distinct event or realization that demonstrates a change in Tony’s opinion. Instead, his “transformation” is presented as a gradual change that occurs as he builds respect for Shirley. However, are we to believe that Tony did not regularly encounter respectable people of color living in the Bronx? There is no explanation as to why this particular situation changes his mind but simply suggests Tony had not previously had the capacity to actually consider the plight of people of color.

There is no doubt this movie is visually pleasing and the characters well-acted, but the fact that it was deemed Best Picture shows how flawed the Academy’s voting basis is. In 2016, members of the Academy were 91% white and 76% male; in 2014, the mean age was 63. A population that is overwhelmingly white and male would, of course, choose a film that paints a white male in a positive light, whether subconsciously or not.

Although the racial and gender makeup may have shifted in the past few years, this overwhelmingly white male makeup demonstrates how a film such as Green Book was able to win. The story is antiquated, suggesting that having a friend of color will make a white person less racist, and offers far too much resolution for a relationship that existed right in the middle of America’s Civil Rights Movement.

When the producers rushed the stage to accept the award, there were four people of color among the twenty-one individuals that were on stage. This, in essence, shows exactly what Green Book represents. Despite the claims that it is about “overcoming barriers” and “love,” it remains a story about a white man through the lens of a white man.

If a movie about a person of color’s experience was going to win, unequivocally it should have been Roma or BlacKkKlansman. They are stories featuring people of color defined on their own terms rather than having their value designed within the context of a white character. It is a tragedy that Don Shirley, a man who held several degrees, spoke multiple languages, and was a celebrated musician, was reduced as a means to an end in this story.

This outcome is especially poignant for Spike Lee, as in the same year his Do The Right Thing lost in both award categories it was nominated for, Driving Miss Daisy took home the top prize. In the same way, it is not that Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t a genuine film or that Green Book doesn’t have other redeeming qualities, they simply don’t address racism in a new or challenging way.

When accepting Best Original Screenplay, Nick Vallelonga thanked his father, Tony Vallelonga, saying “we did it.” While accepting Best Picture, director Peter Farrelly thanked Viggo Mortensen, commenting that there would be no movie without him. Not once, in either of these speeches, was Don Shirley’s name mentioned.

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