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Don Shirley’s family dismayed at pianist’s portrayal in ‘Green Book’

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Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga, co-writers and producers of best picture Oscar winner “Green Book,” discuss the controversy surrounding the movie, as well as Spike Lee nearly walking out of the awards when it was announced as best picture. (Feb. 25)
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It’s hard to package history, race and truth in one cinematic box. 

Hollywood claims to have done this with the “The Green Book,” which won three Academy Awards Sunday night, including Best Picture. 

The story was based on the friendship between Anthony “Lip” Vallenlonga, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx and renowned African-American musician Don Shirley, whom Vallenlonga in 1962 chauffeured through the Deep South. 

As he accepted the best picture Oscar, “Green Book” director Peter Farrelly said the film that featured Mahershala Ali as Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Vallenlonga was about “love” at a time when race, class and prejudice divided much of the country. 

But there is no love for Vallenlonga from members of the Shirley family, who say they and their potential contributions to the film were shut out. 

When Ali won the supporting actor Oscar, Shirley’s family was on Skype. 

“Everybody was happy for Mahershala Ali and the first words out of his mouth was thank you to Dr. Don Shirley,” said Shirley’s niece, Jasmin Shirley.

But jubilation turned to anger when it was announced that the “Green Book” received an Oscar for Best Original Screen Play,” and then Best Picture.   

“I was livid. …There was no recognition of my Uncle Donald or our family,” Jasmin Shirley said. Indeed, director Spike Lee seemed ready to walk out of the Dolby Theatre after the best picture win, and the Twitterati seemed miffed that Hollywood picked a white savior film over “Black Panther” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”

In their acceptance speeches, director Peter Farelly and screenplay writer Nick Vallenlonga never mentioned the Shirley family, but in a post-awards media press conference Vallenlonga, son of Anthony Vallenlonga, addressed the controversy. 

“If you are discussing the Don Shirley family thing, that falls on me,” Vallenlonga said. 
“Don Shirley himself told me himself not to speak to anyone. He told me the story that he wanted to tell.” 

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But members of Shirley’s family say the depiction of Don Shirley is just not true. For starters, they say Vallenlonga was hired to drive Shirley on a tour of historically black colleges and universities, not a tour of segregated venues across the South. The lens through which the story is framed is another issue.

“The thing that bothers our family is the focus of the film is all about a white man who was an extreme racist who was still a racist at the end,” said Karole Shirley Kimble, daughter of Shirley’s brother Maurice.  “Clearly, our family has a legacy of black excellence and family pride.  Our concern is that (this) white director presented one person’s perspective.” 

What is not in dispute is that Vallenlonga used the real “Green Book”  to find places for he and Shirley to eat and sleep. The guidebook was created by Victor Green, a New York city postal worker, and published between 1936 and 1967. It was as cherished as the family bible for many African American families who often made long trips across the country on dark highways lined with segregated corridors and hate.

The book grew in popularity and size thanks to J.D. Rockefeller and his Esso gas stations, but fell out of favor in the 1960s once accommodations were integrated. A Smithsonian Channel documentary, “The Green Book Guide to Freedom,” featuring home movies of African American families, debuts Monday night.

Kimble said had the movie makers asked the family, they would have gotten a more realistic view of Shirley’s tour.  

“They didn’t (include) my family,” Kimble said. “They didn’t listen to the other side of the story. They listened to other whites talk about my uncle.” 

Don Shirley was born in Pensacola, Florida, on Jan. 29, 1927. His parents were Jamaican immigrants. His father, Edwin, was an Episcopal priest and his mother, Stella, worked as a schoolteacher. She died two days after delivering Shirley’s brother, Maurice, who eventually became a psychologist. Two other brothers, Calvin Hylton Shirley and Edwin Shirley Jr., became physicians. Donald Shirley earned three doctorates. 

“Grandfather Shirley believed that there was a time to work and a time to play. He believed in the scripture that obedience is better than sacrifice and he molded his children and grandchildren in that way,” said Kimble, adding that after their mother died the brothers worked hard at cooking and cleaning so that their father wouldn’t get married again. But Edwin Shirley did marry again after he moved the family to Fort Lauderdale, and he and his new wife had a daughter, Edwina.  

A prodigy, Shirley began playing piano at age 2. By 9, he was studying music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He started playing professionally in 1955 at age 18 with the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat.” 

“At every stop his family was there,” said Jasmin Shirley, adding that he learned to play from his mother, who was the organist at St. Cyprian Episcopal Church in Pensacola. 

The Shirleys lived in St. Cyprian’s parsonage, in the shadows of the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, a booming African American business corridor in 1930s Pensacola. The area was filled with churches, business owners, medical professionals, funeral homes and large family homes. 

“I remember the Shirley boys playing in this house,” said Maggie Polkinghorne Wilson, 84, whose brother was Lt. James Porkinghorne, a Tuskegee Airman and World War II pilot. 

Shirley attended the Catholic University of America as well as the University of Chicago, and earned doctorates of music, psychology and liturgical arts. But he became disenchanted with musical performance.

In a 2018 video from a planned, never completed documentary with the working title of  “Let It Shine: Don Shirley,” he was filmed in his New York City apartment above Carnegie Hall, where he talked about his goals. 

“I was dead set on being, all my life, what I was trained to be, although I had to go through the back doors of the nightclub,” Shirley said. 

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Despite performing with symphonies in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and other cities, Shirley ended up taking the advice of New York theater producer Sol Hurok, who told him that white audiences in the United States were not ready for a “colored” playing classical piano on the concert stage. He was better received in overseas venues from Africa to Europe.

“He was a child prodigy but he couldn’t be a classical pianist because of the color of his skin. You can hear the pain in his voice. You can see his anger. He was angry because he was disrespected,” Jasmin Shirley said of the documentary.

The film portrays Shirley as a lonely man who was estranged from his family. But Kimble said Don Shirley kept up with his family until he died on April 6, 2013. 

“His biggest treat was traveling to Milan, Italy, and performing at La Scala, the world’s largest opera house,”  Kimble said.

Shirley recorded hundreds of pieces, and two of his favorites was a remake of “Bridge Over Trouble Waters,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” 

Shirley blended classical music with jazz and pop music to create his own style. But to his own frustration, most of his performances were in nightclubs instead of concert halls, and he sought to differentiate himself from regular nightclub performers.

“They smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like (classical pianist) Arthur Rubinstein,” Shirley said in a 1982 New York Times interview. “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.” 

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