Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Ali's Character In 'Green Book'
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Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Ali's Character In 'Green Book'

Avatar of Hugo Marquez

By: Hugo Marquez

February 6, 2019

What's on Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Ali's Character In 'Green Book'
Avatar of Hugo Marquez

By: Hugo Marquez

February 6, 2019

The Academy Award-nominated film 'Green Book' depicts an important moment in US history and the life of Don Shirley. But, should we trust everything we see?


Who was Don Shirley? The Academy Award-nominated Green Book tells us that he was an outstanding musician, who dared travel into the segregated South, accompanied by a white driver, who would become one of his closest friends. The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, the driver, and Mahershala Ali as the iconic musician. Now, although it's a moving film with outstanding performances that show the craft and talent of both actors, I couldn't help but wonder how accurate the events portrayed in the film were.

Green Book tells the story of Don Shirley, a renowned African-American concert pianist that went on a tour across the segregated American South during the Civil Rights movement. However, Green Book focuses mainly on Mortensen's character. So, in case you were left wanting more, here are ten facts about Don Shirley that the Oscar-nominated film didn't quite cover.

Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Alis Character In Green Book 1@greenbookmovie

1 - He was promoted as a Jamaican artist 

Though he was sometimes introduced as Jamaican (since he was son of Jamaican parents), Donald Walbridge Shirley was born on January 19, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida. 

2 - Why did he speak Russian?

He started playing the piano at the age of 2 at his parish (his father was an episcopal minister), but he began his formal education at the age of 9, when he went abroad to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music in Saint Petersburg. He’d later come back to the states to study advanced composition in the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Alis Character In Green Book 2@carnegiehall

3 - He debuted at such a young age

At 18, he debuted with Tchaikovsky’s piano concert no. 1. Though he was formally trained in classical music, his musical influences also involved blues, spiritual, and popular music. He wasn’t very fond of jazz.

4 - He was 22 when he performed at Carnegie Hall

In 1955, at 22, he played at the prestigious Carnegie Hall for the first time, which would eventually lead to his residency. That same year, he began recording his piano versions of songs such as “My Funny Valentine” and “The Man I Love.”

Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Alis Character In Green Book 3@carnegiehall

5 - He never went to graduate school

Though he was called Dr. Shirley, he never actually attended graduate school. However, he got two honorary degrees, so it made sense that people called him “Dr.”

6 - He was very private about his life

Although the film depicts a sexual encounter that took place at a YMCA, Shirley kept his personal life very private. He never talked about his sexual preferences nor came out of the closet. So, we could say that the scene that explores his sexuality is mere speculation. 

7 - The tour lasted a year, not two months

In the film, Shirley’s tour in the segregated South took place two months before Christmas. However, it actually lasted a whole year.

8 - He chose his own repertoire

He didn’t consider himself an entertainer, so during his tour, where he played white-only theaters, he refused to be told what he would and wouldn't play.

Don Shirley, 10 Facts About Mahershala Alis Character In Green Book 4@carnegiehall

9 - The actual "Green Book" included places in Mexico and Montreal

The "Negro Motorist Green Book" was a travel guide for African-Americans during Jim Crow. It was published annually from 1936 until 1964, with the Civil Rights Act. The book included places in Mexico and Canada (Montreal) and listed restaurants, service stations, hotels, "tourist homes," taverns, liquor stores, beauty parlors, nightclubs, drugstores, and tailors.

10 - Shirley’s family wasn’t involved with the movie

Don Shirley died on April 6th, 2013, due to heart conditions in his home, an apartment above Carnegie Hall. And, though he was friends with Tony Vallelonga, Shirley’s family has stated that the film may be deceptive and unjust in the depiction of Shirley’s life as well as his relationship with Vallelonga.

Though the story focuses mainly in Vallelonga's growth and change of perspective regarding racial discrimination, it is also worth noting that Vallelonga's perspective is the one that tells the story. Not that we don't believe these two men were real friends, and that they helped each other on a personal level, but it makes us wonder how much of what was on the film sticks to the facts and what is mere romanticization of a historical period that should always live under the shadow of shame.

Green Book scored 5 Oscars nominations, including Best Picture. It had also 5 nominations to the Golden Globes and actually won three of them, including Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy; Best performance by an actor in a supporting role to Mahershala Ali; and Best Screenplay. 

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