Mahershala Ali Apologizes To Family Of “Green Book” Character After “White Savior” Backlash Erupts
The family of Dr. Don Shirley, the acclaimed jazz pianist portrayed by Mahershala Ali in Green Book, recently called out the movie for what they believe is a false portrayal of events.
Green Book instantly became a film festival circuit favorite this fall and has now gone on to snag several nominations in the upcoming movie award season, with critics groveling over the relationship between Ali’s Shirley and Vigo Mortensen’s turn as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, the white chauffeur who shuttles Shirley around for a majority of the film.
In the movie the two develop a close relationship, and on-screen viewers are led to believe that their close interactions morphed into an impactful relationship.
However, Shirley’s family says that couldn’t be further from the truth. In a recent interview with Shadow & Act, Edwin Shirley and Dr. Maurice Shirley, Shirley’s nephew and brother respectively, labeled the film as “jarring,” while also calling it a “body of lies.” The two remained in close contact with Shirley until his death in 2013.
“You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony,” Maurice Shirley said. “Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time,” he continued.
The family also took issue with the insinuation that Shirley was ashamed of his Blackness and the erasure of Shirley’s involvement in the civil rights movement, noting that he was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King. But more than that, both Edwin and Maurice were angered that the movie attempted to distance Shirley from his family, who was close-knit.
The family said their grievances fell on the ears of Ali who recently reached out with a sincere apology.
“He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” Edwin told Shadow & Act. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.'”
According to Shirley’s family, Green Book creators never reached out for approval or to fact check. The Shirley’s also specifically call out Vallelonga’s son Nick, who served as a lead writer on the film. Edwin Shirley contends Nick never got permission from Shirley to make the movie, even though Nick allegedly pursued him over two decades.
“I met Nick for the first time at the premiere and I told him, ‘I have to give you credit for tenacity because you have been trying to get this thing done for 30 years,'” said Edwin Shirley. “And that’s when he told me, ‘Oh, yeah, well my father and I went to see him and he gave us his blessing,’ and I told him that was hard to believe.”
The Shirley’s experience highlights another tone-deaf example when white filmmakers vie for the stories of Black people without their involvement.