Green Book won Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday night in the final award of the show. As befits tradition, the producers of the film, and its director Peter Farrelly, took to the stage to accept the award.
They thanked a number of people, including the late Carrie Fisher, however they completely failed to pay tribute to Dr Donald Shirley, the real-life man at the centre of their film. To make matters worse, their star Mahershala Ali had just won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar earlier that night, for playing Shirley.
The film was inspired by the real life friendship between Shirley, a pianist, and his driver Tony Vallelonga, who formed a bond during a tour of America’s Deep South in 1962. The film has received criticism for its handling of the race relations, its historical accuracy, and Shirley’s family has said it contains “hurtful lies”.
Backstage after the awards, screenwriter and producer Nick Vallelonga – son of Tony – responded to the criticism.
“You get nervous up there,” he said. “Don Shirley, obviously we all thanked Mahershala, gave him a great thank you. If you’re discussing the Don Shirley family thing, it falls on me, but Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone. He told me the story that he wanted to tell, he protected his private life and all the other things about him. … He told me, ‘If you’re going to tell the story, tell it from your father, me, no one else, don’t speak to anyone else, that’s how you have to make it.’ And also he told me, ‘Don’t make it until I pass away.’”
He continued, “So I just kept my word to that man, I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley’s family, I didn’t even know they really existed until we were making the film. We contacted his estate for his music, and then the filmmakers, we invited them all to screenings and discussions. I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley’s wishes. I’m an Italian from New York, they call that a stand-up guy, I kept my word to the man, and that’s the reason for that.”