Family members of pianist Dr. Donald W. Shirley (who is portrayed by Mahershala Ali in Green Book) have publicly denounced the movie's fictitious narrative, and have received an apology from Ali in response. Two of those family members, Dr. Shirley's nephew, Edwin Shirley III, as well as Dr. Shirley's brother, Maurice Shirley, called out the movie's questionable depiction of his friendship with chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) during an interview with Shadow and Act.
"It was rather jarring," said Edwin, about his first time seeing the film. He also described a plot point where Dr. Shirley was estranged from his family as "very hurtful" and "100 percent wrong."
On top of that, Maurice said he was "furious" over the movie's depiction of his brother, and called Green Book a "symphony of lies," even pointing to a specific instance in the film where Shirley said he didn't know of the whereabouts of his brother.
"At that point [in 1962, when the events of the film supposedly take place], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact," Maurice said. "One of the things Donald used to remind me in his later years was he literally raised me…There wasn’t a month where I didn’t have a phone call conversation with Donald."
Maurice also said that the friendship between Shirley and Vallelong, which is at the film's core, was not based in reality. When asked if the two were close, Maurice and his wife Patricia said "No. Not at all," adding that it was "an employer-employee relationship." Edwin went on to say that Dr. Shirley never referenced Tony as a "friend" and stated that their real-life association was "the only kind of relationship that [Dr. Shirley] ever had with any of the people he worked with."
Maurice also said that his brother's temper would have precluded any such relationship.
"You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony!” said Maurice. “Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time…Tony would not open the door, he would not take any bags, he would take his [chauffeur’s] cap off when Donald got out of the car, and several times Donald would find him with the cap off, and confronted him. When you hear that Tony had been with him for 18 months, I can assure you, no chauffeur lasted with my brother for 18 months. Anybody who knew my brother’s temper and had any experience with any of his other chauffeurs—the maximum was the one from right here in Milwaukee from the Urban League that lasted at least two months.”
Shirley's family went on to say that Donald never wanted a movie made about his life, and that Nick Vallelonga (Tony's son, and the film's co-writer) approached them about making a movie 30 years ago.
“I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years, my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it,” said Edwin “He flatly refused.”
Both Edwin and Maurice said that they got a heartfelt apology from Ali after he learned of their grievances.
“I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally,” said Edwin. “He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense.”
According to Edwin, Ali said "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.’”
It'll be interesting to see if the controversy affects Green Book's Oscar hopes moving forward.