WILL THE REAL DR. DONALD SHIRLEY PLEASE STAND UP?

chords sheet on piano tiles
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The announcement of this year’s Oscar for Best Motion Picture left some film-goers stunned and others happy.

The Green Book tells the story of Dr. Donald Shirley, a professional pianist of color, and his white driver/bodyguard, Tony Lip, as they motor through America’s southern states during Dr. Shirley’s performance tour.
Contrary to one’s expectation that most black film-goers would laud the movie’s Oscar win, its award elicited unexpected reactions. A number of black film critics joined Dr. Shirley’s family members in scorning the untruths presented in the movie.

Among the inaccuracies that invade the film are: the portrayal of Dr. Shirley’s having been raised by a single mother who struggled against poverty, the pianist’s issue with alcoholism, his possession of a throne upon which he sat as he interviewed Tony Lip, his distaste for fried chicken, his emotional distance and lack of awareness of popular black musicians, and his estrangement from black culture in general.

I believe the film’s truth-bending scenes served the filmmakers’ goal of reaching a wide audience, one that would understand Dr. Shirley only with the insertion of hyperbole and the distortion of some of his life’s facts.
It’s possible the movie’s producers realized this and then tailored the script to fit different viewers.

FOR AUDIENCE MEMBERS WHOSE RELATIONSHIPS WITH PEOPLE OF COLOR HAVE BEEN SUPERFICIAL AND LESS THAN MEANINGFUL

Although the portrayal of the heretofore racist Tony Lip as Dr. Shirley’s “guide” to black culture is patronizing at best, it’s also a gold-leafed invitation to movie goers who have never established a deep relationship with a person of color. Tony’s role provides comfort and sends a message of safety to many of those ticket buyers. It telegraphs yes-the-movie-is-about-racism-and-its-inherent-violence-against-black-people, but-it’s-safe-for-you-to-see-it- because-Dr. Shirley-isn’t-killed-and-the-movie’s- real-hero-is-Tony-Lip, a white man. Perhaps the success of this messaging effort explains Viggo Mortenson’s Best Actor nomination alongside Mahershala Ali’s Best Supporting Actor nod. Ali won…the second place award.

The Green Book is 2018’s Lilies of the Field. They are both emotionally satisfying films whose endings promise audiences that everything will work out as well as the happiness we see on the smiling faces surrounding the Christmas dinner table chez Lip.

FOR AMERICAN PEOPLE OF COLOR WHO HAVE CONSIDERED RAGE WHEN FEAR IS SIMPLY TOO MUCH

The slightly tattered invitation to see The Green Book received by black audiences arrived in the form of film reviews that mentioned Dr. Shirley’s survival.

We wouldn’t have to endure the pain that often accompanies our memories of race relations during the 1950’s. We wouldn’t have to still our hands or quicken our breathing in fearful expectation of witnessing the inevitable, sickening, and oft-repeated fate of those who went before us, headlong into enemy territory.

“You mean he’s riding in the back seat of a decent car driven by a white man through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, etc., and he doesn’t get lynched, shot, or killed? This I have to see.”

We’re able to smile at Dr. Shirley’s triumphs and remember moments when color, gender, or sexuality didn’t hold us back.

two Dr. Don Shirleys

FOR LGBTQ PEOPLE OF COLOR WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SCREAMING WHEN THE RAINBOW FLAG AND/OR ACHIEVEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN ENOUGH…

This is the group to which I belong. I absorbed and felt every frame of The Green Book, perhaps because I related to Dr. Shirley’s character and to some of his experiences. When I read about the film’s inaccuracies, I felt disappointed. Then, in retrospect, I welcomed spinning through each distortion or omission and questioning the filmmaker’s motives. I decided the “invented” material was there for the benefit of viewers who might not have grasped the subtleties of Dr. Shirley’s background and how that background impacted the pianist’s life.

Dr. Shirley’s mother was a teacher and his father, an Episcopal priest. These two factors granted the family upper middle-class status. The subtlety of class difference inherent in Episcopal vs. other Protestant sects is not easily discerned by those who don’t realize there IS a black upper middle class.

According to Dr. Shirley’s family members, he was not addicted to alcohol. He did not use Cutty Sark each night to drown the indignities he experienced.

Although he maintained strong friendships with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Leontyne Price, Paul Robeson, and William Warfield, his black contemporaries in the music world, he did experience an emotional disconnect from people of color who lived in extreme poverty. That is why the film’s chord that sounded truest to me was the silence-filled scene when Shirley emerged from his rented car stopped by the side of the road and saw the black farm workers standing in the field across from him. He looked at them and they looked at him. Each face wore the expression of people who had known each other once, a long time ago. Shadows of tentative recognition along with the hint of the impossibility of relationship crossed the road that separated them like a gaping chasm carved by one person’s opportunities and others’ lack of it.

Those of us who were this third audience saw Dr. Shirley’s existential plight.
He was a person unable to be whole, unable to merge the different layers of his identity: a black man in America, a black man communing frequently with white Americans, a black man educated abroad, a black man performing European classical music with as much skill as he performed popular jazz, a black man whose same-gender attractions left him vulnerable to violence-laden arrests. And in case anyone missed Dr. Shirley’s plight, the screenwriter provided his character a stirring “who am I?” soliloquy delivered in the midst of his frustration, in the midst of a rain drenched road in the middle of the American south.

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The speech was not subtle. It was the film’s exclamation point.

Some of us have been there. Some of us are there. Some of us will find ourselves there.

Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector of the Goldie Award winning anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. She is one of this year’s recipients of the Alice B. Readers Appreciation Awards. You can find her here at Women and Words the fourth Thursday of each month, and here, http://www.reneebess.com.

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10 comments

  1. Excellent blog. I saw this movie and throughout the viewing I kept thinking they made this to be easily chewable. It’s Hollywood after all and the less ppl made to feel uncomfortable about black men…blacks in general the better (for them). To me it’s kinda like those good ole McGraw-Hill history books that said African slaves immigrated here. Nothing like washing away troublesome history or glossing over it..

    On the flip side, I got that he was upper class and there was more than likely a disconnect from the common black man. Kinda reminds me of a Ben Carson sitch. That disconnect continues I think with a lot of the upper crust..

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    • Thanks for reading my blog post, K.D. Oh how I pray that Dr. Shirley was not like Ben Carson. Dr. Carson has made alienation from one’s racial group an art form. He’s taken it to a whole “nother” level. I agree that the disconnect between some folks who identify as “upper crust” and others who identify as “the common black man/women” persists. Doesn’t that disconnect exist and persist between people of all ethnic groups who represent different socio-economic classes? Unfortunately, experience has shown me there’s something else, something unique that overshadows the disconnect between African Americans of different socio-economic strata. That “something” is this. No matter the differences in our individual circumstances, we’ve all been called the mother of all pejorative names at some point in our lives. Dr. Shirley, Dr. Charles Drew, Barack and Michelle Obama, you, me. Knowing this fact gives us the power, if not the will, to connect with each other, not disconnect.

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  2. excellent article/comment Renee.. I haven’t seen the Green Book as yet, but I will certainly keep your thoughts on the subject in mind when I do

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  3. A great read, and dissertation of intersectionality on individual, social, and cultural planes! It’s going to be fantastic hearing what you have to say on/in the panel.

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    • Well thank you, Ms. M! Please know that your comments have accelerated my anxiety vis-a-vis July’s GCLS panel!

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  4. I am not a moviegoer, but am very moved by your passionate analysis of this attempt to filter reality in the interest of accessibility. Or perhaps profit? The term selling out can be understood two ways.

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    • Oh, for profit I’m sure. The wider the net is cast in search of different audiences, the bigger the profit margin. That said, Dr. Shirley’s life captured my attention and helped me recognize “the familiar.” Thank you for reading my post and for being moved by it, Lee.

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  5. Renee, I finally saw the film on the plane going to a work meeting. I felt like I had to see it in order to then read all the critiques, especially yours. After seeing the film, I realized that the entire story was told from the white man’s gaze and not that of the African American man. I knew that Tony’s nephew wrote the screenplay and that accounted for some of the fact that the film ended up the way it did. But I didn’t realize how many factual falsehoods the film peddled about Dr. Shirley’s actual life. Disgraceful.

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    • Hi Cindy. I’m glad you saw the film and I believe you’re right when you say “the entire story was told from the white man’s gaze.” Despite that fact, someone involved with the film was sensitive to the conflicts simmering just under Dr. Shirley’s calm exterior. I could remain aware and angry about the biographical distortions in the movie, or I could take from the film all of the nuances that I perceived and validated based upon my own life experiences. Because it’s a given that some of us live each day with a double-consciousness and because anger-filled days and nights are not good for my physical and emotional health, I’ve chosen to find the elements of Dr. Shirley’s life that relate to mine and find solace in not being the only one.

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