Green Book Won At the Oscars, But How Did Don Shirley Lose?

First, I want to say this. I did not watch the Oscars this year. Instead, I watched all the reels and highlights that came after.

Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Don Shirley in Green Book and while I root for black people receiving the accolades they deserve because it is so rare, this time, I felt disappointment.

Soon after it was announced that Green Book won Best Picture, I remember again I was filled with disappointment. Some may wonder why I feel so strongly about this film, but if you’ve been keeping up with the news surrounding Green Book prior to the Oscars, you might already know the reason.

I and many others were disappointed because Green Book is, in my opinion and in that of several people close to the real Don Shirley, a fraudulent or at least embellished portrayal of the life of a gay black man and the white man he was ‘friends’ with.

In short, the film is just another feel-good movie about ‘white saviour’ behaviour, meaning a white character rescues a black or otherwise non-white character from some unfortunate life and is celebrated for it. This controversial cinematic trope was addressed by director Peter Farelly, who said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “I don’t think we fall into any of those tropes. It’s about two guys who were complete opposites and found a common ground, and it’s not one guy saving the other.” He also noted that he is glad a discussion about race is being brought up, because his goal was to make a film about bringing people together, though many might say that was not what Green Book achieved. I doubt people who make films with white saviour tropes intentionally pledge to do so, but regardless they have the same effect.

Even Spike Lee, the filmmaker behind the Best Picture-nominated BlacKkKlansman, was upset about the win, voicing his concerns at parties after the awards show had concluded.

My biggest problem with Green Book is that even if the director had not intention of making a ‘white saviour’ film, the movie felt so unbelievably inaccurate.

The screenplay was written by the son of the white character in the film, Nick Vallelonga, and was directed by a white man, Peter Farrelly. In my opinion, the movie depicts the famous Jamaican-American pianist Don Shirley as being too good for black culture, going so far as to show that he knows nothing about it and wants nothing to do with it.

None of this is true, according to Yvonne Shirley, Don Shirley’s great-niece, who said to E! News that the film “decided to create a story of a white man's redemption and self-realization using an extraordinary black life and a history of black oppression in this country as their backdrop.” She said Don was proud of his “Deep South” heritage and lived it fully from his birth until his death in 2013. Backstage at the Oscars, Nick Vallelonga told journalists that Shirley had asked him not to write the screenplay until after his death.

Still, Don’s family disputes this, with his nephew Edwin Shirley III claiming that Don did not want the film to be made at all.

According to Nick Vallelonga, Don asked him not to reach out to his family about the film, and so many of Don’s surviving family members did not know it had even gone into production until they saw trailers debut in 2017.

If that’s not frustrating enough, I could go on about the absolute mindlessness that is Viggo Mortenson having used the N-word to describe a scene in the film at a press conference in November. This moment alone proves to me why white saviour movies need to burn, because clearly the actor in the film still doesn’t understand the meaning of the movie.

I could also talk about how the filmmakers and actors deflected any blame from Don Shirley’s family about the insensitivity of the film, but I feel I am already incensed enough.

I sadly get the feeling that, as always, the white people reading this who need to understand the issue the most will not fully understand the circumstances until they are explained to them by a white man, and so I encourage them to, after this, take a look into Richard Armin. He is a retired Toronto musician who worked very closely with Don Shirley and rejects Green Book’s narrative. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Armin said the film was “a complete lie.”

I will disclose that I identify as a black person and too often we are said to be worked up over nothing regarding issues like this. The truth is, I used to like some of these films. For a long time, Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank, was one of my favourite movies. Many years later, it occurred to me how many films like Freedom Writers were made before and after it, and I realized films like these were a trope. The unspoken intent was for me to see those films and think that racism is not as harsh as it is to the plight of black people and discover that other races are not so different.

This is one of the many harms that come from white saviour films. It hurts to hear, but white people and black people are different. There is a large disparity in how black people are treated in the world and the best thing a white person can do is stop making films about us all being friends and start listening to the stories black people tell. The true stories.