It’s been a tempestuous 12 hours since the 91st Academy Awards went off the air, that’s for certain. After Green Book stunned the audience by winning Best Picture—none more so than Spike Lee, who physically made his frustration clear—countless essays have already hit the web, lambasting the Academy for a predictably safe choice of Best Picture that once again tells a story about racism from a white man’s perspective.
Among the people who have recently spoken against Green Book, though, is one group that deserves special consideration: The family of musician Don Shirley, portrayed by Mahershala Ali in the film. After the film hit theaters, family members responded by calling its portrayal of the friendship between Shirley and his driver, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), full of inaccuracies and outright lies.
“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,” said the pianist’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble. “It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life.”
Asked for comment after winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two-time Oscar winner Nick Vallelonga defended himself by first saying that he “didn’t know” Shirley’s close family existed, and then by saying that Shirley himself instructed him not to speak with anyone else, including his family. This is of course impossible to verify, given that Shirley passed away in 2013—but it does serve as a convenient defense for Vallelonga, who also apologized this year for racist, anti-Muslim tweets he made in 2015. All we’re left with is the word of the Oscar-winner who wrote a screenplay about his own father befriending a black musician, vs. the word of that black musician’s family.
“The Don Shirley family thing falls on me but Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone,” Vallelonga said. “He told me the story that he wanted to tell, he protected his private life and all other things about him, miraculous things about him. He told me if you’re going to tell the story, tell it from your father, me, don’t speak to anyone else, that’s how you have to make it. I kept my word to that man, I wish I could reach out to Don Shirley’s family, I really didn’t know they existed until we finished the film. Don Shirley and my father together had an amazing story and that’s where the film comes from,” said Vallelonga.”
Somehow, we have a feeling that probably won’t placate Shirley’s family—who do in fact exist, by the way.