Don Shirley And 'The Green Book' Are The Historical Anchors Of Mahershala Ali's New Segregation-Era Film
In theaters this week (Nov. 16), Green Book has already garnered critical acclaim and interest from the public by winning the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) beating the box office hit, A Star is Born. This film is the first drama for director Peter Farrelly, best known for his comedies Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary.
Green Book, a dramatic shift from Farrelly’s previous work, tells the story of Donald Walbridge Shirley, professionally known as Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist touring the American South with his Italian-American driver and bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). While the film is rife with comedic moments as they form an unlikely friendship, the underlying storyline is based on real-life experiences with segregation in the South during the ‘60s.
For many, though, this film serves as an introduction to not only what The Green Book was, but the real-life challenges faced by African Americans who relied on it as a guide when navigating their way through American interstates. For Shirley, this book played an integral role during his tour throughout the American South in 1962. To fill in some of the nuances of the story that may be missed in two hours and 10 minutes of screen time, it is important to understand the impact of both Don Shirley as a musician and the actual The Green Book before seeing the film.
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WRAPPED. The last 3 months in NOLA spent on this project have been an incredibly rewarding time. Can't wait for everyone to see #GreenBook. #ViggoMortensen #MahershalaAli #DonShirley #repost @mahershalaali #criteriongroupartists #criteriongroup @sarklmakeup @tarraday #geordiesheffer I and appreciate u ladies
The film begins with Don Shirley’s search for a driver and bouncer to accompany him on a tour. Shirley was a highly acclaimed pianist and composer who developed his own signature musical style that was a melange of classical, jazz and popular music. It was his musical prowess that brought him recognition from audiences filled with the social elite, celebrities and even presidents on occasion, who gathered to hear him play the classical arrangements in a not-so-classical way. He was known for adding his own flair to the music and was a true virtuoso in every sense of the word.
Throughout his career, Shirley composed three symphonies, two piano concertis, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on Finnegans Wake and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, and a number of other covers of popular classical music.
Born to Jamaican parents, Don Shirley was a musical prodigy first taught to play the piano at two and a half by his mother and began performing by the age of three. By 10, Shirley had mastered most of the standard concert repertoire studying under organist Conrad Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and made his debut at the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor at the age of 18.
Sometime in his 20s, Shirley was advised by impresario Sol Hurok that American audiences were not yet ready to see a “colored” pianist on the concert stage and that it was a better choice for him to pursue a career in popular music or jazz. Instead of letting this deter him, Shirley began playing in nightclubs and invented his own musical genre as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio (along with a bassist and a cellist), which played popular European and American music with a classical structure. In a 1982 New York Times interview, Shirley spoke about the evolution of his musical style over the years, stating that “The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that's all I have ever tried to do."
Shirley’s first original composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. He then began touring the world and was invited to play for the Haitian government at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince, with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, to name only a few. At this time, he is said to have averaged some 95 concerts a year while composing symphonies and pieces for the piano, quartets and piano concerts along the way. He held a Doctorate of Music, Doctorate of Psychology (University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa) and Doctorate in Liturgical Arts, and was fluent in eight languages.
Shirley reached the peak of his popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, recording 16 albums including one on which “Water Boy,” his single with the Don Shirley Trio, reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He developed a friendship with fellow pianist Duke Ellington and was known for performing his music, on-stage alongside Ellington and in whose honor he wrote “Divertimento for Duke by Don” in 1974. But it was his appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show that transformed him into a national sensation and sparked interest in touring all corners of the United States.
In 1962, he enlisted not only a driver but the use of The Negro Motorist Green Book to help navigate his way through an area of the country that still had segregation laws. Developed by a postal worker named Victor Hugo Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book was first published in 1936 in Harlem as an aid to help his community navigate their way through New York. It was inspired by similar guides created in Jewish communities to distribute list establishments that were safe to visit. The guide was updated annually for 30 years and expanded to include information on all 50 states and eventually information on airline and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.
By the mid-20th century, the car was synonymous with the joy of travel, as the great American road trip was on the rise. But for African-Americans living in the Jim Crow era, navigating the open road wasn’t without its roadblocks. Segregation was still legal in the South, which meant that most motels, restaurants, service stations and even public restrooms were not areas where all travelers could go. "Sundown towns" and “sundown laws” we’re also still quite common in the Caucasian municipalities in the South, where people of color were banned from a certain jurisdiction and had to leave by nightfall.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” —excerpt from forward in the 1948 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book
During these years, The Green Book became an indispensable resource for traveling African-Americans to share their knowledge and create safe driving routes in unfamiliar areas the United States. By the early 1940s, The Green Book included thousands of establishments—either black-owned or verified by other travelers to be non-discriminatory—from across the country.
In its prime, The Green Book sold upwards of 15,000 copies a year and through a sponsorship deal with Standard Oil, The Green Book was available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country. Not only was The Green Book a resourceful guide for black travelers, but it also became a catalyst for black entrepreneurship promoting black-owned restaurants and motels and helped members of the community transcend socio-economic barriers into the middle class.
In preparing for the film, Mahershala Ali was surprised to realize that The Green Book was a positive thing for African-Americans. During the 1950s and ‘60s, a number of African-Americans migrated from the South to Chicago and California but often families would take road trips for weddings, funerals and family reunions.
But the reality was that at this time, it didn’t matter if you were Duke Ellington, Don Shirley or the family down the road; the laws of segregation applied to all African-Americans.
During a Q&A session after its TIFF premiere (Sept. 11), Ali told an anecdote from the filming of Green Book. He met a man who recalled that the popular motel used in a scene was the very same establishment frequented by musical legends Little Richard, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ray Charles and more. The highly-recommended motel was just inches away from the freeway and nothing to note in today’s standard for travel. It was the only place African-Americans could stay.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. Shortly after, The Green Book ceased production and retired to a memory of this time often found tucked away in your grandparent’s attic or basement or at the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which has digitized its collection.
Today, we still see contemporary African-American communities rallying together to share community resources. Travel Noire, an online resource for black travelers to share their stories and practical advice, is a modern iteration of the communal resource that was The Green Book.
“There are things that are unique to our experiences as black travelers, and those stories deserve to be told,” Travel Noire’s managing editor Nadia Harris says via email. “Not only does it provide a roadmap to travel success; this community lets you know that you're not the only person who experienced those long stares in China or that the overwhelming sense of love and pride you felt in Tanzania was indeed real. You are not alone. We've traveled to these same places and we've felt those same things.”
Whether we are in 1962 or 2018, finding a community to share their insights in exploring new places has always been (and will always be) what holds the black American community together through travel.