'Green Book' Is About Race — And Also Friendship, Class And Masculinity | KERA News

'Green Book' Is About Race — And Also Friendship, Class And Masculinity

Jan 8, 2019
Originally published on November 27, 2018 8:02 am

Don "Doc" Shirley could have been one of the most famous classical musicians in the world had it not been for the color of his skin.

As a black man playing piano in the 1960s, Shirley was excluded from many of the great American music venues of the day. The indignities continued when he decided to tour the Deep South in 1962. Not only did he have to play what he felt were less desirable stages and styles, but the trip also required a white driver to get him safely from club to club.

The movie Green Book tells the story of Shirley and of his friendship with Tony Vallelonga, the white man he hired as his driver during that 1962 tour. In an interview with NPR, Mahershala Ali, who plays Shirley, describes why the musician felt compelled to go south.

"It would have been too easy for him to stay up north or go to Europe and tour and travel and make money," Ali tells Morning Edition co-host Rachel Martin. "I think he was seeking to penetrate the stereotypes, especially once you cross that Mason-Dixon line. Doc Shirley wanted to expose himself to that environment for the good of changing minds and hearts."

On the tour, Shirley and Vallelonga used The Negro Motorist Green Book, a directory of businesses across the country that welcomed black travelers at a time when many places didn't.

A classical pianist and composer, Shirley grew up with dreams of playing on the world's most prestigious concert stages. He began collecting musical achievements early, learning piano at the age of 2 and performing his professional debut with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor at the Boston Pops at 18.

But Shirley's dreams of playing classical piano were deferred when a mentor advised that as a black man, he wouldn't be welcomed on concert stages around the world. He diverted from his classical aspirations to playing jazz, performing genre-bending compositions that also blended Negro spirituals and hints of classical music.


Interview Highlights

On why Shirley hired Vallelonga, who was openly racist, to drive him

I don't know if he would have even thought he could find someone else that would be that different. If you think about a white man agreeing to work for a black man in 1962 and drive him around in the South, it would have been challenging to find someone who could check all the boxes. I think that he approached it — and I'm guessing a bit — but I believe he would have approached it from the standpoint of believing that he would be able to be in control of the space in the car because he is the boss. He tolerates it because for him to complete this tour he needs his presence, but Tony needs Doc as well.

On the film's themes of masculinity and identity

It is a lot about masculinity and identity – and also giving people space to define that for themselves. As we're born, we're constantly having this negotiation between who we feel we are or what we feel we are with what the world is saying and guiding us to be, so that we all fit nicely into our categories. It's so much more complicated than that. I haven't seen Don Shirley's archetype before, and that was something that was really attractive to me because he was multidimensional.

If you look at Nina Simone — as much as we love and appreciate Nina Simone and her contributions to music and art — Nina Simone was never the Nina Simone that she wanted to be. She wanted to be a classical pianist. Don Shirley wanted to be a classical pianist. That's the experience of the black artist in this country — constantly being pointed and steered towards what's commercially profitable or where socially you're acceptable but not necessarily toward your talent and your freedom, and therefore eventually the fulfilling of your own potential.

On Ali's own perspective of fulfilling his potential as a black artist

Looking from my father to my grandfather, grandmother, my family — you inherit a little bit of the struggle. It means that even post-Oscar I have to advocate for myself. ... It doesn't mean that "Here is this trophy and then here's a leading role.' The conditions still are what they are, but you might have to say, "Hey, that second lead that you've handed me this script for? That's a cool part but I've done so much of that in my life. This leading part? I really want to play that part. That's the part I want to play."

I'm proud, and I feel fortunate to be in that place where I am in a position to speak up on certain things and perhaps change things, not only for myself but for a whole community of people at times. And any and all of us in those type of positions, when we have that kind of platform, have to be very conscious of having that responsibility and do our best to do good and be responsible with it.

Note: The broadcast version of this story aired Nov. 23. The digital story published Nov. 27.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Don Shirley could have been one of the most famous concert pianists in the world had it not been for the color of his skin. As a black man in 1962, Shirley was excluded from many of the great American music venues of the day. And when he decided to tour the Deep South, not only did he have to play less desirable stages and styles, he also needed a white bodyguard to get him safely from club to club. That's the story behind the new film "Green Book," starring recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley, also known as Doc.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREEN BOOK")

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tony) Yeah.

DON STARK: (As Jules) Some guy called over here - a doctor. He's looking for a driver. You interested?

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Don) I am not a medical doctor. I'm a musician. I'm about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South. What other experience do you have?

MORTENSEN: (As Tony) Public relations.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Viggo Mortensen as Doc Shirley's driver/bodyguard. This film is about what it was like to travel while black in the Jim Crow South. It's also all about this particular relationship between Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga. I talked with Mahershala Ali recently about the film. And he told me why Doc Shirley felt compelled to go south.

ALI: It would've been too easy for him to stay up North or to go to Europe and tour and travel and make money. I think he was seeking to penetrate the stereotypes, especially once you cross that Mason-Dixon line. Doc Shirley wanted to expose himself to that environment for the good of changing minds and hearts.

MARTIN: He knows it's going to be hard, though. He knows...

ALI: Yes.

MARTIN: There's going to be trouble...

ALI: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Which is why he decides to hire a driver.

ALI: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Not just any driver - he wants, like, a bruiser.

ALI: Yes.

MARTIN: (Laughter) He wants a body man. Enter Tony Vallelonga...

ALI: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: ...Known as The Lip.

ALI: Yeah.

MARTIN: We're made aware pretty early that Tony is a racist.

ALI: Yeah. Yes.

MARTIN: What does Dr. Shirley make of him?

ALI: Don Shirley really was intrigued by him. He thought of him more as something to observe. And you tolerate and you deal with him. But he was a bit entertained by how off-putting Tony could be at times.

MARTIN: Is there any part of him, though, that feels like it is just yet another indignity? - that he's got to be escorted around given this kind of white cover in order to get into places where he's likely to experience even more indignities.

ALI: Perhaps, but I would also say that I don't think at that time - I don't know if he would have even thought he could find someone else that would be that different. If you think about a white man agreeing to work for a black man in 1962 and driving him around in the South, it would have been challenging to find someone who could check all the boxes.

MARTIN: Right.

ALI: And I think that he approached it - and I'm guessing a bit. But I believe he would've approached it from the standpoint of believing that he would be able to be in control of the space in the car because he is the boss. And he tolerates it because, you know, for him to complete this tour, he needs his presence. But Tony needs Doc as well.

MARTIN: It's really interesting because this is a film about friendship and about race and about class. But I thought it was also about, to some degree, masculinity and what it meant then to be a man and what it means now. And it seems - I don't know. I'd be interested in what you thought. But is it fair to say each of these men, in their own way, is trying to figure out that?

ALI: Yeah. Thank you for saying that. I - it's really true. It is a lot about masculinity and identity and also giving people space to define that for themselves. You know, there's a lot of pressure on all of us, culturally, to - as we're born, we're constantly having this negotiation between who we feel we are or what we feel we are with what the world is saying and guiding us to be so that we all fit nicely into, you know, our categories. It's so much more complicated than that.

And I haven't seen Don Shirley's archetype before. And that was something that was really attractive to me because he was multi-dimensional. If you look at Nina Simone - as much as we love and appreciate Nina Simone and her contribution to music and art, Nina Simone was never the Nina Simone that she wanted to be. She wanted to be a classical pianist. Don Shirley wanted to be a classical pianist. That's the experience of the black artist in this country - constantly being pointed and steered towards what is commercially profitable or where, socially, you're acceptable but not necessarily towards your talent and your freedom and therefore, eventually, the fulfilling of your own potential.

MARTIN: What about you? You're a black artist.

ALI: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you feel like you are fulfilling your potential? Do you feel like you have been able to do the things you want to do?

ALI: You know what? I realize, even doing this project now, looking at - you know, from my father to my grandfather, you know, grandmother, like, my family - you inherit a little bit of the struggle. It means that I have to - even post-Oscar, I have to advocate for myself, you know? And I've done that. I had to advocate for my first lead opportunity. And that went extraordinarily well. But I - it doesn't mean that you - here's this trophy and then here's a leading role.

It's - the conditions still are what they are. But you might have to say, hey, that second lead that you've, you know, handed me the script for, that's a cool part. But I've done so much of that in my life. This leading part, I really want to play that part. That's the part I want to play. And I don't say that in a - I'm proud. And I feel fortunate to be in that place where I am in a position to speak up on certain things and perhaps change things, not only for myself but for a whole community of people at times, you know? And any and all of us in those type of positions when we have that kind of platform have to be very conscious of having that responsibility and do our best to do good and be responsible with it.

MARTIN: The film is called "Green Book." It stars Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley. Mahershala, thank you so much for talking with us.

ALI: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON SHIRLEY'S "THE LONESOME ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.