Mahershala Ali brings story of accomplished, debonair concert pianist Shirley to life

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VIGGO MORTENSEN as Tony (Vallelonga) Lip and Oscar-winning actor (“Moonlight”) Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley take a break during their road trip in “Green Book,” as Shirley helps Lip write a letter to his wife. 

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen

“Green Book” is an entertaining film with a bit of history thrown in. Given that, I had to research just how much of the film was true and how much was “inspired by true events.”

“Green Book” stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip and fan favorite Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley, who was a concert pianist who lived above New York’s Carnegie Hall in an opulently appointed apartment and who had been engaged for a two-month gig in 1962 traveling from Pittsburgh to the Deep South for performances. The problem is that Shirley needs a driver—particularly a white one—to chauffeur him through the segregated South.

According to the website “History vs Hollywood,” the title of the movie comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, more commonly referred to as “The Green Book,” which was a segregation-era guidebook for African-American motorists that alerted them to which restaurants, garages and hotels offered service to Blacks. Travelers would also encounter “sundown towns,” which prohibited Blacks from being outside after nightfall. Lip and Shirley encounter one such town in the movie.

Also, the green-covered guidebooks were published by a man named Victor H. Green and were available at gas stations, selling as many as 15,000 copies per year. The first Green Book was published in 1936 and continued to be published annually for the next 30 years. On the cover of some was the reminder, “Carry your Green Book with you, you may need it.” The movie follows Lip, who is a Bronx racist, and Shirley using a Green Book as they travel through the South.

Shirley had been classically trained, but his meshing of classical, jazz and other types of music made him more marketable as a Black artist. In the film, Shirley played many private clubs and restaurants that were attended by whites-only audiences.

In a New York Times interview in 1982, Shirley’s disdain for nightclubs is revealed: “He hated the nightclubs because he felt that the audiences didn’t respect his music enough. He also felt that jazz pianists demeaned themselves in the way they carried themselves on stage. They smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whiskey on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like Arthur Rubinstein,” Shirley said. “You don’t see Arthur Rubinstein smoking and putting a glass on the piano. The Black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”

For all his acclaim, however, Shirley seemed a lonely man who would say himself that he didn’t fit in either the Black or white worlds. And during that time period, no matter how accomplished, he still had to stay at motels and Black-owned establishments, while Lip enjoyed the confines of better accommodations.

I enjoyed the film, as it not only showed the great music that was literally right at Shirley’s fingertips, but it showed the racism that permeated that era and sadly still does. One great part of the film and revealed in reality is that Lip grew to become less racist and more refined—due to Shirley’s insistence—and Shirley opened up a bit and was less restrained than when the tour began (a tour that reportedly actually ran closer to two years than two months).

Although some parts may be a bit exaggerated, in the end “Green Book” is a testament to folks of different ethnicities being better able to understand each other with just a bit of conversation and empathy for each other’s commonalities and unavoidable lifetime struggles. I loved how Shirley was always expertly tailored and represented all that was proper in the world and Lip was a round-the-way uneducated, brash ex-bouncer who had much to learn and eventually opened up his mind. “Green Book” has been compared to a reverse “Driving Miss Daisy,” and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer serves as one of the executive producers. It is playing everywhere.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the award-winning Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.”

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