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‘Green Book’: Real-Life Friends of Dr. Don Shirley Defend ‘Simply Wonderful’ Film

The fact-based Peter Farrelly feature has faced criticism from the family of one of its subjects, but close friends now champion the film.

“Green Book”

Universal Pictures

Hot off a trio of Golden Globe wins and a raft of guild nominations this week, the “Green Book” team continued on the awards season trail with a Wednesday afternoon stop at Manhattan restaurant Patsy’s for a lunch and Q&A hosted by actor Daniel Craig. Located less than half a block from Carnegie Hall, the former home of “Green Book” subject Dr. Donald Shirley (portrayed by Golden Globes winner Mahershala Ali), the event included unannounced special guests in the form of the jazz pianist and composer’s real-life friends and protegés.

The awards campaign for any biographical film benefits from the support of those who knew the subject, but for the embattled “Green Book,” it’s essential. The film, which follows Shirley and former bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Golden Globes and SAG nominee Viggo Mortensen) as they embark on a working road trip through the racially divided Deep South of the 1960s, broke out at as any early Oscars frontrunner after a stellar premiere (and People’s Choice Award win) at TIFF in September, but has been plagued by controversies in the intervening months.

Most notably, members of Shirley’s family hit back at the film for its portrayal of Shirley’s relationship with his relatives during the trip with Vallelonga. In December, Shirley’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, and brother, Maurice Shirley, called out the film, telling Shadow and Act that the film was “rather jarring,” “very hurtful,” and “a symphony of lies.” Moreover, some family members claimed that Shirley and Vallelonga were never friends after their fateful trip.

Another shocking claim from the family: Shirley never even wanted to have a film made based on his life. Edwin said when “Green Book” screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, approached Shirley three decades ago about making a movie, Shirley rebuffed him. However, at Wednesday’s event, Vallelonga told the packed house that he interviewed both his father and Shirley “many, many times” about their trip and relationship.

L to R: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in GREEN BOOK

“Green Book”

Universal Pictures

“I got [Shirley’s] blessing of what I was allowed to put in and what he didn’t want me to put in,” Vallelonga said. There’s a lot of things, like, ‘Why’s it more about [Vallelonga]?’ It’s not what [Shirley] wanted, he allowed me to tell the story of my father and him on the road. There might have been other things in his life that maybe he was saving for his own book or film, but he just said, ‘Tell the story of when we’re together.’ … He had asked me to not do anything until he had passed away.”

After a Q&A featuring Farrelly, Vallelonga, Mortensen, co-star Linda Cardellini, and co-writer Brian Hayes Currie, producer Jim Burke introduced a half-dozen of Shirley’s friends, students, and colleagues who took turns praising Farrelly’s film for its portrayal of the Shirley they knew, calling the film “simply wonderful” and “a gift to his legacy.”

Former friend and piano student Michael Kappeyne told the crowd, “I believe I speak for all of [his friends] when I say that this has been a wonderful experience, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful movie for so many reasons,” he said. Choking up, he continued, “We are really thrilled with Dr. Shirley’s portrayal, because we think it’s right on the money, we feel the dignity, we feel the wariness, we feel some of the hidden anger, of which he had a lot, but we also feel the presence and generosity of spirit that he had towards all of us, and he helped several of us and changed our lives.”

Kappeyne added, “Face it, it’s not a biopic, never pretends to be, so it’s not the full story of Dr. Shirley. But what is in there is simply wonderful.”

Long-time friend Dr. William Boddie — who joked that he was a “real doctor, by the way,” a nod to one of the film’s early cracks — met Shirley through his own wife, who knew Shirley since she was a child and referred to him as her “godbrother.” Later, Shirley became such a fixture in their family that the Boddies’ son referred to him as his “Uncle Donald” and would frequently visit him in the city while attending prep school in Connecticut. While Boddie’s son was not in attendance, he passed along his thoughts on the film through his father: “He said that Don Shirley was a gift to the world, and he was, and ‘Green Book’ was a gift to his legacy.”

Fellow musician Dr. Muhammad Hatim, who said he was “always referred to” as Shirley’s godson, praised Ali’s performance in the film. “This is my fourth time seeing the film, and I’m okay until he sits at the piano and does ‘Blue Skies,’ tears just start running down my face,” he said. “The acting, the interaction, was just so moving for me, to see the spirit of Dr. Shirley was captured in such a magnificent way, I just wanted to thank everybody for that.”

“Green Book” is currently in theaters. 

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