Dr. Donald W. Shirley was a piano prodigy of Jamaican descent who had mastered much of the standard concert repertory by age 10. “His virtuosity is worthy of gods,” Igor Stravinsky once said. Yet the idiosyncratic Shirley has been reduced to one of cinema’s long-standing racist stock characters in Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book.”
To be fair, “Green Book” doesn’t set out to be a Don Shirley biopic; however, the movie’s billed as essentially an interracial buddy comedy. Universal, which produced the film, plans to submit the true-life road trip film in the Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes (although its eventual category placement will be determined by the Hollywood Foreign Press). American buddy comedies have generally mandated equal screen time to both characters — except when one of those characters is black, and exists almost entirely to help transform his white companion on a quest toward salvation. That’s the “Magical Negro” problem, and “Green Book” falls right into the trap.
The movie finds Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley driven through racist southern states on a music tour by Viggo Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, whose journey forms the bulk of the movie, while Shirley remains the preternaturally talented figure who enlightens the knuckleheaded Vallelonga.
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“Green Book” falls into a sprawling history of “Magical Negro” stereotypes across film history, including some beloved performances. These include Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in “Ghost” (1990), Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), Bagger Vance (Will Smith) in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000) and — most egregiously — John Coffey (the late Michael Clarke Duncan) in “The Green Mile” (1999).
Spike Lee — who satirized racist stock characters in his 2000 film “Bamboozled” — referred to the last of these characters as “super-duper” versions of the Magical Negro. “Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing? I get mad just thinking about it,” Lee said to Calhoun College students in 2001.
The “Magical Negro” archetype is typically rooted in a white screenwriter’s ignorance of any genuine African-American experience. He’s typically patient, sometimes wise, and usually has some sort of magical power. His ultimate function is to help the white protagonist overcome some major character flaw.
In the case of “Green Book,” Shirley is only allowed to hint at his family history, with minor references to an estranged brother we never meet. His only real communication is with Mortensen’s demonstrably racist — though, we are led to believe — big-hearted Tony Lip, whom he hires as his driver and bodyguard while embarking on a tour through southern states in the early 1960s.
Mortensen’s Lip, on the other hand, is given a full, complex life – a family, including a concerned wife, with children, a father, brothers, former employers, and more. Ali’s steely Shirley helps Lip become an improved version of himself, while Shirley himself remains a mystery all the way through the credits; he’s little more than a specter, designed to help Vallelonga negotiate his prejudices.
While on the road with Shirley, Lip, as a promise to his wife, writes letters to her, which become increasingly poetic as the more urbane Shirley, essentially continuing to fulfill his “Magical Negro” duties, decides to help Lip compose them, teaching him the language of love. But who does Shirley write to while on the road? Apparently, no one. Who does he love or care about? The film doesn’t tell us. What does he ultimately want, his raison d’être? It’s not entirely clear. We are told that he was once married to a woman who evidently couldn’t handle his busy touring schedule, but in a scene midway through the film, he’s found in a public restroom, naked with another man, visibly ashamed. The suggestion here to audiences unfamiliar with his real-life story is that Shirley might have been conflicted about his sexual identity. But Farrelly does nothing further with this plot revelation in ways that might complicate the character. It’s dropped in the moviegoer’s lap and never mentioned again.
Shirley is depicted in the film as being uneasy around other black people, and has to be taught black history by Vallelonga — who also instructs Shirley on how to eat fried chicken, in scenes designed to be light-hearted that instead feel cringe-worthy. The conflict is ripe for extended inquiry that could reveal more of his personal story, but that potential goes ignored, rendering the man as a series of soundbites that hint at possible racial and sexual crises never properly investigated. The audience is left to fill in the gaps.
An almost Jesus-like figure, Ali’s Shirley reacts to the racism he faces with a cold reserve, never once getting visibly angry, even in supposedly private moments. Vallelonga does that for him, serving as Shirley’s “anger translator,” perplexed by the pianist’s apparent lack of indignation at the injustices he faces. It’s certainly possible that this aspect of Farrelly’s portrayal of Shirley’s temperament is in line with the real-life Shirley. But even Martin Luther King Jr. — racist white America’s go-to “model Negro” — raged from time to time.
The screenplay was written by Vallelonga’s son, Nick Vallelonga, with additional credits to Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie, so it’s no surprise that the story gives Mortensen a much better developed character to embody. It’s unclear what their source material was for the fictionalized account of Ali’s Shirley, beyond Vallelonga’s son’s own recollections of his father’s relationship with the late savant. Shirley himself gave him permission to reveal his sexuality, but only after his death (he passed in 2013).
The real Shirley’s own life is something of a mystery: There are no biographies, and obituaries following his death are mostly general, offering facts about his many accomplishments, but none that disclose much about his personal life. What can be found in abundance is his music, which might ultimately be the only way audiences will be able to get to know him — aside from Farrelly’s fragmentary portrait.
But even with the lack of available information, it’s hard not to imagine a version of “Green Book” in the hands of a black filmmaker who would have recognized the need to give Shirley a more complex screen presence.
There’s a more complete and honest film to be made about the relationship between Vallelonga and Shirley. The film tells us that they became great friends. One must assume their real friendship went beyond Shirley’s ability to help Vallelonga transform from an uncultured, racist white man, so he could be a compassionate and seemingly more content human being. Farrelly and his team probably believed that they were depicting an “exceptional” African American in a positive light, but the character is still ultimately secondary and serves as a plot device.
“Green Book” enters theaters with the blessings of African American actress Octavia Spencer, who serves as one of the film’s executive producers. Spencer won an Oscar for 2011’s “The Help,” a similarly oversimplified, mawkish take on race relations set in America’s past, during the same period. Her “Help” costar Viola Davis recently revealed publicly that she regretted her involvement in the film. “I just felt that at the end of the day, that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” she said in September. Referencing the characters she and Spencer played in the film, she said, “I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
Likewise, Shirley’s voice is effectively marginalized in “Green Book.” In a film that the late prodigiy’s 86-year-old younger brother Maurice Shirley has said is “full of lies,” Farrelly has created a rather shallow look at race and racism in Jim Crow-era America, where all it takes to heal racial divisions is an innocuous road trip and goofy misadventures. Sadly, Shirley isn’t alive to fill in the blanks.