“Green Book” was greeted with general acclaim from critics and audiences but now the family of one of the film’s true-life characters are speaking out against it.
In Wednesday’s episode of the NPR radio show “The 1A Movie Club”, relatives of Dr. Don Shirley, the black, queer musician played in the film by Mahershala Ali, have disputed his characterization.
Dr. Shirley’s younger brother, 86-year-old Maurice, spoke to the show’s host Joshua Johnson before the segment. According to Johnson, “[Maurice says] he refuses to see the film because it is, in his words, ‘full of lies.’
“He also said that, unlike in the film, Dr. Shirley was not estranged from his family or the black community,” Johnson continued. “He says [Dr. Shirley] had definitely eaten fried chicken before” meeting Tony Lip.
Johnson was referring to a scene in the film in which Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen, discovers that Dr. Shirley has never had fried chicken, and then introduces him to the Southern staple.
Dr. Shirley’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, also called into the show to raise her objections.
“There was no due diligence done to afford my family and my deceased uncle the respect of properly representing him, his legacy, his worth, and the excellence in which he operated and the excellence in which he lived. It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life,” Kimble said.
“My uncle was an incredibly proud man and an incredibly accomplished man, as are the majority of people in my family,” she continued. “And to depict him as less than, and to depict him and take away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best.”
In “Green Book”, Tony Lip is hired to drive Dr. Shirley on a musical tour through the American South during the 1960s, and the two form a strong bond over the course of the journey.
The film has divided response, though, with some critics raising concerns about its depiction of race relations.
“But this movie was written, directed and produced by white people for white people, almost none of whom will have never found themselves at risk of a hate crime,” writes Jenni Miller at NBC News, “much less a hate crime neatly solved by a tough white guy who, in one scene, eats an entire pizza folded up like a slice while relaxing in his undershirt and shorts.
In Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman responded to the backlash, writing, “What is the movie’s crime? It’s based on a true story, which it tells with considerable depth. It’s not trying to make a grand statement about race except for the idea that white people and black people, to the extent that their backgrounds and experiences separate them, should try to understand each other better.”
The promotional campaign for the film also generated controversy recently when Mortensen used the N-word when speaking at a Q&A about racist speech that is no longer acceptable.
The actor later apologized for his comment, saying, “Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”