‘It Happened to My Father the Way It Happened’: The Truth About Green Book

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Participant/DreamWorks.

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a film about an Italian-American bouncer who escorts a black pianist on a tour of the Jim Crow South in 1962, is emerging as an awards season frontrunner. Not just inspired by historical events or “based on a true story,” the film is the true story. “It happened to my father the way it happened,” says Nick Vallelonga, the son of the film’s protagonist and one of the movie’s screenwriters.

But the family of the pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, has dismissed the film, not just for its factual inaccuracies, but for essentially revising and rewriting a black man’s identity. At Vanity Fair, film critic K. Austin Collins comments on all that’s wrong with the movie.

The artistic and political success of any film “based on a true story” doesn’t hinge entirely on absolute historical accuracy. But the debate over the truth of Green Book fascinates me because of all of the unquestioned assumptions—and the presumptions—undertaken by Farrelly and crew in their design of Dr. Shirley’s character.

It’s really something. Everyone seems to agree that Tony Lip had a, shall we say, limited view of black Americans before meeting Shirley. According to his son, he was “a product of his times. Italians lived with Italians. The Irish lived with the Irish. African-Americans lived with African-Americans.” The trip with Dr. Shirley, Vallelonga said, “opened my father’s eyes . . . and then changed how he treated people.”

Yet it is this man’s account that became the basis for an entire film—this account which, from his screenwriter son’s own admission, is informed by a limited, very 1960s, very white understanding of race. Though unreliable on its face, this understanding becomes our lens into the history of this specific black man.

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