What’s the Cost of Turning History and Racial Politics into Entertainment?

Green-book
The movie Green Book was inspired in part by a guidebook of the same name published during the segregation era. Photo credit: New York Public Library / Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Spoiler Alert! This podcast features a detailed discussion of the story portrayed in the film Green Book. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, please save this podcast for later.

The movie Green Book has earned accolades and attacks since it was released in December. The controversies are sure to be rekindled by the 91st Academy Awards Sunday, Feb. 24  Green Book received five Oscar nominations, including “best picture.”  Earlier it garnered three Golden Globe awards, including “best supporting actor” for Mahershala Ali for his portrayal of acclaimed classical and jazz pianist Dr. Donald Shirley. And as a Hollywood biopic that’s “based on a true story,” it has drawn sharp criticism from Shirley’s family members, who say the film distorts and fabricates key elements of the musician’s “true story,” while ignoring powerful parts of his real story.

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III is an author and national radio host who interviewed Shirley’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece before the film was released. They say they were not contacted or consulted by producer/director Peter Farrelly or his screenplay co-writer, Nick Vallelonga.

The story, fictionalized but inspired by actual characters, is based on the perspective of Vallelonga’s father, also known as “Tony Lip,” portrayed as a racist, Italian-American nightclub bouncer who was Shirley’s driver on a 1962 concert tour that took them deep into the Jim Crow south.

In this podcast interview, Leon details a long list of what he thinks are inaccuracies in the film, from Shirley’s early life to his family relationships to the film’s insinuations that he was gay, a boozer, and a black man who’d never had fried chicken or listened to the music of Little Richard.

While we don’t expect Hollywood versions of people’s lives to be accurate or literal portrayals, Leon feels that the wholesale changes to Shirley’s story while purporting to tell his story using his name are remarkable.

Leon and, he argues, other African American observers see this as part of an all-too-familiar Hollywood pattern: using racial stereotypes to entertain white audiences with feel-good stories at the expense of black narratives. As Leon puts it, “There are all these tropes and stereotypes that they play to in the film, which make their story so much more plausible and acceptable to an audience, but just go against some of the fundamental elements and premises of who the guy really was.”

Wilmer Leon is the host of Inside the Issues with Leon on Sirius/XM channel 126. You can read his commentary on Green Book here. The detailed critique we refer to, written by Brooke C. Obie, is here.  

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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from movie review by CityofIrving / Vimeo (CC BY 3.0)

Full Text Transcript:

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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhypodcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. And today for a change of pace, we’re going to talk about a film that has become controversial as it heads into Oscar territory. The movie is called Green Book,picked up a couple of Golden Globe Awards already, and it has also attracted a great deal of controversy about the accuracy of the story it tells about the producer Peter Farrelly. Viggo Mortensen has gotten himself in a little hot water. He plays the lead actor in the film. And Mahershala Ali, who I believe is a co-star, he won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor for his role in this film. And to discuss this today, I’ve invited Dr. Wilmer Leon III to join me. I met him a few years ago when he published a book called Politics: Another Perspective. He hosts a radio show nationally on SiriusXM Satellite Channel 126 and I welcome him to the program today. Dr. Wilmer Leon, thanks for being with me.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Oh, Peter, my pleasure. Man, thank you for the invitation.
Peter B. Collins: And Wilmer, we’ve got to issue a very loud and clear spoiler alert because if our listeners have not yet seen Green Book or they plan to and don’t want to know how the story unfolds, they should stop listening and avoid reading the transcript right now. Because I’m not a movie critic. My job isn’t to try to tease you into the theater or try to build Oscar cred for a film. I’m interested in some of the controversies that have arisen. So Wilmer, first of all, let me say that I screened the film. I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild and during the holidays I spend a lot of time in front of the Tube watching the films that have been nominated. And at our house we enjoyed Green Book. A lot of my Caucasian friends went to see it and came away with a real good feeling.
  It’s kind of an edgier version of Driving Miss Daisy in the minds of many people, yet the true story of Dr. Don Shirley and his career and his legacy really becomes just useful background material for the filmmakers. And you were contacted at your radio show by members of the Shirley family as far back as what? November? As the film was-
Dr. Wilmer Leon: First.
Peter B. Collins: … Pardon me?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Actually December 1st is when they contacted me.
Peter B. Collins: Okay. So right at the beginning of December, and that is as the film had been to some festivals, it was screened at the Napa Film Festival here in California in September. And so it was starting to build some visibility and the family expressed their deep displeasure with the way Don Shirley is depicted and the way his story is handled in the film. How would you summarize their objections, Leon?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Well, I think their objections in summary are the family is highly, highly insulted and offended that they were not consulted on the film. And that even now that they are raising their issues, which are incredibly legitimate issues, Peter Farrelly and Viggo Mortensen seem to be very, very dismissive about the family’s position. And unwilling to just admit they made a mistake and they’re sorry.
Peter B. Collins: And we should note that Peter Farrelly along with the son of the character depicted by Viggo Mortensen – the son’s name is Nick Vallelonga – they get credit for writing this along with Brian Curry and it is based on the senior Vallelonga’s version of his service as a chauffeur for Don Shirley on a single trip to the Jim Crow South in 1962. And there are many things that surfaced for me, Leon, first and foremost at the Golden Globes. I scratched my head and said, “Well, I consider Ali and Mortensen to be co-stars of this film.” But maybe it was just because of the way the category shook out. They submitted the black guy as a supporting actor and the white guy as the lead actor. Did you take note of that as well?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: I took note of that. I took note of the fact that I think it won in the film category under musical and comedy. There were a number of categorizations of the film that to me just did not make any sense. I didn’t find the film to be a comedy. The film was described to me as being a biopic about the life of Dr. Don Shirley. Now I understand that the film was written from the perspective of Tony Lip as it was written by his son, but to not even consult the family and for Mahershala Ali to have been told that the family didn’t even exist. Or at least that there were so few of them that it did not even make sense to reach out to them is just incredibly … In my opinion, I am not speaking for the family, is incredibly insulting and it plays back to the standard narrative that African Americans don’t have a story worth being told. And if the story is worth being told, it’s told from the perspective of a white benevolent benefactor as opposed to being true and honest to the history that is there.
Peter B. Collins: One question that comes to mind, Leon, and as I explained to you before we did the interview, I’m actually on a learning curve about Hollywood screenplays and things like that. I’ve taken on as a volunteer the job of marketing a screenplay about the life of a friend of mine. And he wound up serving 23 years in San Quentin State Prison, which is just down the road from me here. And I’m not trying to plug that, but I just reference it as why I’m interested in some of these issues. And one of the things that I’ve learned from the lawyers is that an individual owns the right to their own life story, their name and their likeness. And one of the things that occurs to me about the many changes that we’ll detail in a moment from the true life story of Don Shirley to what was depicted in Green Book, is that it appears that Peter Farrelly doesn’t own the rights to Don Shirley’s life story.
  And maybe that’s the reason they modified his character so much and changed the narrative including whether or not he had family. His mom died when he was nine, but the film made it seem like she was the central driving force in his development as a musical genius. And so that’s one thing that occurred to me. And has the family discussed any potential litigation around their rights to Don Shirley story?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: They did mention to me early in December that they were exploring their options, but the primary motivation for them in speaking out is they just want the story to be correct. As far as I can understand it they don’t begrudge Mahershala Ali for receiving his award. They applaud him for his career. They applaud him for his performance. They’re not seeking monetary compensation. They just want to be respected. And they feel as though … And again, I’m not speaking for the family. This is my opinion. They feel as though they’ve just been totally, totally disrespected and I can see their complaint as being valid.
Peter B. Collins: Well and as I have read up and I will offer a link to a great piece about this that was written by Brooke C. Obie at the online site ‘Shadow and Act’. And it was published back in December, I believe. And Brooke Obie does an excellent job of helping us understand the real life story of Don Shirley and how deeply the movie departs from that. And so I do understand the interest in accuracy and honoring the legacy of this very talented man. At the same time Hollywood has ransacked history, it has trashed the true life stories of many people in a sacrifice to motion pictures, many of which have won some great awards. And so veracity is not a trait that we attribute to Hollywood movies.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Well, to that point I would also hope that you will provide the link to my piece as well.
Peter B. Collins: Oh, I sure will.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Thank you. But on the veracity side, the interesting thing about that idea is the real story of Don Shirley is much more compelling, much more empowering than the story that the fiction that they put on the screen. And I also pose this, there’s a film out now about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I asked the question, would the folks who wrote the film about her, would they have taken the liberty of portraying her as an alcoholic to make the story more compelling? Would they have portrayed Ruth Bader Ginsburg as being out of touch with her Jewish roots in the Jewish community? Would the writers or the screenwriters of that screenplay, would they have created a character, say a black janitor in the basement of the law school that introduces her to the whole concept of equal treatment under the law?
Peter B. Collins: Or how about matzo ball soup? [laughs]
Dr. Wilmer Leon: How about matzo ball soup? Or the Star of David? Or the writings of a famous Jewish poet or author? Probably not. So-
Peter B. Collins.: Wilmer.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: … why? Yeah.
Peter B. Collins: Wilmer, that’s a show stopper right there. Okay. I just have to give you credit, man. That is a very powerful analogy that I think has to make people who watched GreenBook uncritically and liked it, sit up and say, “Oh, well that’s a really powerful point. You wouldn’t do that to a prominent white person.”
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Not at all. Not at all. And I don’t know this to be true, but in looking at … and I don’t recall the name of the woman that wrote the film, but I think she’s Jewish. And so I know … I’d be very surprised if someone within the Jewish community would take liberties with another famous Jewish character, similarly to the way that Farrelly and Mortensen and Lip have taken liberties with the story of Dr. Shirley.
Peter B. Collins: And one of the most egregious and again, if you’re this far into this podcast and you haven’t seen the film, it’s not too late to bail out. But one of the crucial scenes that I’ve found unbelievable even as I watched the movie before I had this critical commentary before me, Leon, is the scene at the YMCA where the cops come to pick up Dr. Shirley. And the clear implication is that he just had gay sex with a white guy. And that is so far fetched. I lived in the Jim Crow South in 1959 and 1960. There’s no way that he would have been permitted to enter a YMCA, much less hang out or get it on with a white guy. And so that scene just seemed so out of historical accuracy that it was one of the first triggers for me to question the narrative of the film.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: I asked Carol Shirley, the late Dr. Donald Shirley’s niece, while I was sitting in the film and saw that scene, I sent her a text message, “Was your uncle gay?” And she responded, “I don’t think so. He might have been bisexual, but I never saw him with a man. No one in my family ever saw him with a man. And we do not believe that he was gay.” And I spoke to his youngest brother Maurice, who said that there’s … to your point: (a) The YMCA would have not … he would have been arrested for being in the public swimming pool before he even had an opportunity to engage in sexual activity with anyone. And that most likely there would have been a police record of that arrest and there is no police record of that arrest on file.
Peter B. Collins: And Wilmer, early in the film is we’re introduced to Dr. Shirley. He is living in the building, Carnegie Hall. I guess there’s some residential apartments there-
Dr. Wilmer Leon: There were-
Peter B. Collins: … were in fact-
Dr. Wilmer Leon: What a lot of people don’t realize is that before Carnegie Hall was the or became the performance center that it was, it was an apartment building.
Peter B. Collins: … At any rate, the scene that you see is Don Shirley in a throne.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Right.
Peter B. Collins: And he comes off … It really accentuates the impression created by the producers that he had a very regal bearing and was kind of above average human beings. And you tell us through your contacts with the family that he never sat on the throne, never owned a throne. And that just seems so campy. When I first saw it, I thought, “What are they trying to signal to us with this scene?”
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Well that, I think, has to be put in context with Tony Lip allegedly writing to his wife that he’s sitting on this throne as though he’s king of the tomb. See all of that, they are all of these tropes and stereotypes that they play to in the film, which make their story so much more plausible and acceptable to a wide audience, but just go against some of the fundamental elements and premises of who the guy really was.
Peter B. Collins: So as an African American, Wilmer, what is the pattern at play? What do you see that Green Book is a continuation of practice and policy in Hollywood?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: That first of all, in order to be a successful African American, you have to be disconnected from your community. That he was born to a poor single mother. The father had abandoned the home. There was no true, strong male role model in his life. That he again was disconnected from his community so much so that a white man had to come and introduce him to fried chicken and introduce him to the music of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. That he was totally disconnected from his family. He was just untethered to the African American community. Its mores, its values, its culture, its tradition. And his father was an Episcopal priest and as his brother Maurice said to me, “As a PC, I’m sorry, as a PK, a preacher’s kid, we ate fried chicken fairly regularly.” He didn’t need Tony Lip to introduce him to fried chicken. He was friends with Duke Ellington. He was friends with Count Basie. He was friends with Lionel Hampton. He didn’t need Tony Lip to introduce him to African American music or culture.
  And when you listen to his music, there was one song called ‘Water Boy’. When you listen to his music, what he’s playing with his left hand is a very on one level simplistic tune, but it is when you understand the influences that come through the music, particularly what he’s playing with his left hand. Spirituals are there. Songs from West Africa. There are so many elements, complexities in his music that come through, that let you know, this is a man that was directly in contact with who he was as an African American and our African traditions that come through the music. And if I could make one other quick point.
Peter B. Collins: Sure.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Not only does the film do a disservice to the life, and the family of Dr. Don Shirley; it does a great historical disservice to the Green Book. Because when you look at the film, you see that where Dr. Shirley was forced to stay were in black owned hotels that were listed in the Green Book. All of those hotels in the film were dumps. They were in the worst parts of town. They seem to have been poorly managed and frequented by the poor. That could have been nothing further from the truth and turns to the Green Book. That does a disservice to the owners of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. That does a great disservice to the legacy of A.G. Gaston and his empire. Many if not most of the hotels in the group that were listed in the Green Book were fairly or very well run business enterprises. So it even plays to the stereotypes and the tropes that black people can’t be good business people.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and I have a quote from Peter Farrelly. He said, “I was concerned about naming the film Green Bookbecause it’s not really about the Green Book, but the Green Book’s in there throughout and it just seemed to be the right title.” So he said he checked with Octavia Spencer and he called her and said, he’s wondering if we should call the film something else. And she said, “No fucking way. Do not call this something else because we want people to know about the Green Book.” So in this case, it’s described in the commentary of Brooke Obie as fairly passing the buck to the African American consultant on his film.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Well, and she didn’t say, “Use the title Green Book and disparage the people that owned the hotels and the bed-and-breakfasts and the restaurants where African Americans frequented.” And had to frequent as they were traveling to the South. She didn’t say misrepresent the Green Book. Here’s a real quick thought. Imagine if, instead of having him stay in a dump, and I understand that they probably wanted to show the great differences between where Tony Lip was allowed to stay as a chauffeur versus where Dr. Shirley had to stay as the black pianist. But what if instead of staying in a dump, he is staying at a black owned bed-and-breakfast that was owned by an African American educator or two Africans Americans … husband and wife that were African American educators that were middle class. And Tony Lip has to walk into this African American home and see a clean home, well furnished home that is actually owned by intelligent, articulate black people.
  That right there would have gone against the stereotype that black people in the South were ignorant and couldn’t do anything. And so now Tony Lip has to sit down at a dining room table and actually engage with other intelligent black people. Imagine that in the movie instead of he’s just staying in these dumps because black people can’t manage hotels.
Peter B. Collins: Wilmer, you have a future as a script consultant in Hollywood. Are those-
Dr. Wilmer Leon: No. I don’t, because I tell the truth and in too many instances they want to perpetuate crap like the Green Book.
Peter B. Collins: Good point. And let me just to your previous comments about the way the film depicted Shirley, he was born to a mother and father. The mom died when he was nine. The father raised him and his three brothers, all of whom joined him in getting advanced degrees. Shirley himself had three doctorates in music, psychology, and liturgical arts. They grew up in what sounds like a fairly comfortable middle class scene. One of the few black families that owned beach front property in Florida.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Correct.
Peter B. Collins: And the other key point that surfaces in the fact-checking is that Shirley was in touch with his family. In the script he says he has a brother, but they haven’t been in touch for a long time. And that’s really the extent to the reference except that his mother was gone. And so there was a vibrant family unit of Shirleys and as one of the points of refutation, it’s noted that Dr. Shirley was the best man at a brother’s wedding just two years after the timeline of the film. So those are interesting real facts. And as you state in your critique of the film, it appears that the only facts that really exist were that Tony Lip did serve as a driver of Dr. Shirley on one trip to the South. And that’s where the facts run out in terms of what is depicted in Green Book.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: Even the nature of the trip. It is depicted … They show him playing music in white people’s homes, and that trip from what Mrs. Pat Shirley told me and what it was confirmed by Mr. Maurice Shirley, the trip was through the South where he played at historically black colleges and universities to help those HBCUs raise money. So here again, if this is the guy that is totally out of touch with the black community, how is it that the purpose of that Southern tour was to help raise money for HBCU?
Peter B. Collins: Now, Leon as we look at the bigger picture here. Hollywood does have a pretty bad history of using authentic black stories and narratives and abusing them, manipulating them and making them appeal to white audiences at the expense of the credibility and history of the African American characters. And one of my disappointments at the Golden Globes is that BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s very powerful movie about race that came out last summer, was whiffed. They didn’t honor it in any way, and I felt that if you want to look at films about race in 2018, that BlacKkKlansmanpacked a much more powerful message than Green Book did. But Green Bookis safe. It’s one of those movies that’s not going to offend anybody. And certainly BlacKkKlansman makes waves and depicts a lot of ugly white people in an accurate fashion. So we see the way this awards process, rewards the sanitized narrative while pushing back or pushing away from what I consider to be a powerful and historic narrative in BlacKkKlansman.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: One of the things that you and I spoke about before we sat down to do what we are doing right now, having conversation right now, is I posited to you the theory. And again, this is my opinion, that Hollywood felt that Green Bookhad to be structured the way that it was. It had to tell the story in the manner in which it did, to play to the sensibilities and concerns of White America. If they had told the true story of Dr. Donald Shirley, which again is much more powerful, much more compelling, much more empowering than the foolishness that they put on the screen, they felt that they would have had to market the film as a black film and that it would not then have generated as much interest among white audiences as this, “Oh, a white man comes in on his shining white horse and saves this black man from himself.”
Peter B. Collins: That is the safe approved, sanitized, saccharin narrative that Hollywood has used many times.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: There you go. And that I believe is the basis of the rationale behind the … If you were to ask them and they were to tell you honestly, I think that would be the answer you would get.
Peter B. Collins: Wilmer, a couple of years ago the Academy and the other entities in Hollywood responded in some ways begrudgingly to the Black Lives Matter movement. And we saw an uptick, a surge in nominations for African Americans. And there was an increase in the number of awards ultimately issued. And it appears that the #Me Too movement in some ways has supplanted the consideration of race in Hollywood and that sex and sexual harassment and sex crimes and cover ups have taken center stage. Do you see it that way?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: I really haven’t looked at it from that perspective, so I would prefer to withhold comment on that because I don’t really know what the numbers are and I don’t really know what the data shows. So I want to hold back on that one because I’m really not sure how to answer that question.
Peter B. Collins: All right. I respect that. Let me just close with the way you close your commentary. You quoted Langston Hughes from 1946, “America does not yet permit Negro artists and intellectuals to wash their hands in the water of cultural freedom.” And you say, “So it was in 1946 and so it still is with Green Booktoday.” Do you care to expand on that?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: I think, no. I don’t need to expand on Langston Hughes. He covers the landscapes, but you might want to do, if you can, is just give the first two sentences of my opening from him.
Peter B. Collins: Okay. I have to turn the page here.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. From Manning Marable.
Peter B. Collins: All right. Here it is, “The greatest struggle of any oppressed group in a racist society is the struggle to reclaim collective memory and identity. At the level of culture, racism seeks to deny people of African, American-Indian, Asian and Latino descent, their own voices, histories and traditions. From the vantage point of racism, black people have no story worth telling, that the master narrative woven into the national hierarchy of white prejudice, privilege and power represents the only legitimate experience worth knowing.” And that’s a quote from Dr. Manning Marable and the book, Escaping From Blackness: Racial Identity and Public Policy,published in 2000. And do you care to comment on that?
Dr. Wilmer Leon: I can’t expand on the late great Dr. Manning Marable either. I think his words speak for themselves and I think he hit the nail on the head and I think that encapsulates why you and I are having this conversation today.
Peter B. Collins: Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III, it’s a real pleasure to chat with you today and I enjoyed this conversation.
Dr. Wilmer Leon: And honor is all mine. Thank you so much. Look forward to having you back. I look forward to being back. I say that as a whole, so on my own show. I look forward to being back on your show. Thank you very much.
Peter B. Collins: And I want to thank you for not saying thanks for having me. I’m tired of that phrase. You have not-
Dr. Wilmer Leon: [crosstalk 00:32:01].
Peter B. Collins: … been had. Thanks for listening to this radio, WhoWhatWhypodcast. Send your comments to Peter at peterbcollins.com. And I hope you’ll support the investigative work here at WhoWhatWhywith your contributions.

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