Marketing materials for Oscar contender Green Book claim the film is inspired by a true friendship, but just how accurate is the movie? Surprising attendees at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, the latest work by director Peter Farrelly (of Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary fame) quickly emerged as a major player on the awards circuit. It took home Toronto's People's Choice Awards (making it a virtual lock for a Best Picture nomination) and is seen as a feel-good, entertaining option for older moviegoers this holiday season. However, whenever a movie generates this kind of buzz, there's bound to be controversy.
As Green Book started to pick up steam at the festivals, several pundits compared it (at times not in a favorable light) to 1989's Driving Miss Daisy. Some critics feel Green Book takes a rather safe and antiquated approach to its subject matter, making the movie somewhat problematic. The fact that it draws from real life indicates that there's some authenticity behind it, though the extent of that is certainly open for debate. Family members of Green Book's two lead characters - Tony "Lip" Vallelonga and Dr. Donald Shirley - have widely different takes.
Related: Watch the Green Book Trailer
Tony Lip's son Nick Vallelonga is one of three credited co-writers on the film, and both he and Farrelly will tell people Green Book is very accurate. Yes, there was some artistic license taken in places (as is customary for any historically-based film), but the creative team thrived to be as truthful as possible. Interviews with Shirley and Tony Lip's accounts of the memorable concert tour (which Nick tape-recorded) were the primary sources for the original screenplay. Some of the dialogue was taken straight from these materials, including Shirley's bit on jazz pianists having a whiskey glass on their piano. Additionally, Green Book portrays Shirley's trip as being about more than just entertainment, which lines up with the musician's desire to illustrate the "black experience" in his work.
Green Book is definitely a story told from Tony Lip's perspective, which is where trouble arises. In the wake of the film's release, members of Shirley's family, including his brother Maurice and niece Carol Shirley Kimble, have blasted it for being "full of lies." Among their points of contention are the notion Dr. Shirley was estranged from relatives and felt ostracized by the Black community (two key components of Shirley's character in the film). Maurice also took issue with the infamous fried chicken scene, stating Dr. Shirley "definitely" ate that type of food before crossing paths with Tony Lip. Sadly, both Tony and Dr. Shirley passed away in 2013, so neither man is here to either confirm or deny Green Book's presentation of the events. This makes it hard to determine which side is being more honest, and the fact that details about Dr. Shirley's personal life are limited adds another complication. Since the movie commemorates the incredible journey of two late friends, one would hope Farrelly and Vallelonga did the story justice and respected the memory of both men. But if claims like ones from Shirley's family are out there, it does raise some doubt.
Fortunately for Universal Pictures and their awards campaign, any perceived inaccuracies haven't negatively impacted Green Book's prospects too much, but it's still a hurdle the studio will have to clear if they're to take home any of the major awards. A case can be made the film would have benefitted from the input of those close to Shirley, but it's worth mentioning Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley remained friends after the Southern tour, traveling on the road multiple times afterwards. One would have to imagine, then, that Vallelonga and Farrelly didn't go completely off the rails in their depiction and stayed true to the real Dr. Shirley. Perhaps one day the full mystery will be resolved, but for now, audiences are left to formulate their own opinions as they scout the Internet. If nothing else, Green Book should encourage viewers to read up on the true story and discover Shirley's incredible music.
- Green Book (2018) release date: Nov 21, 2018