The True Story Behind ‘Green Book’

 

Stephanie Officer

There are several scenes in the Oscar nominated film “Green Book,” that are still up for debate in real life — more than half a century later.

Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali plays Don Shirley, otherwise known as Doc Shirley, a Classical and Jazz pianist of Jamaican descent. He was deemed a prodigy who began playing the piano at just 2 years old.

Shirley rose to prominence in the 1940s, composing orchestras and playing the world over.

By the time he was 19, Shirley had already played with the Boston Pops and London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Shirley also earned a doctorate in music, psychology and liturgical arts.

He embarked on a tour in the 60’s through the Jim Crow south, which led him to hire a bodyguard to chauffeur him.

Enter Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen. He was a white Italian-American bouncer from The Bronx whom Shirley hired. Vallelonga has said he earned the nickname “Lip” because he had a fast mouth.

In the film, Doc’s record label gives Lip the “green book,” which refers to the real-life “Negro Motorist Green Book” published from 1936-1967.

“The Negro Motorist Green Book” was written by Victor Hugo Green, a black postal worker from Harlem, New York City, as a guide to businesses in the south. It listed locations where black people could safely eat, gas up and lodge. It included everything from hair salons, to pharmacies, to theme parks like Disneyland.

It also helped African Americans travel the country with dignity. During that time, they were encouraged to buy cars if they could, in order to avoid segregation and embarrassment on public transportation.

The guide especially came in handy for travelers to avoid possibly deadly encounters in what were then known as “sundown towns” — white only areas in the north and south where black people were not welcomed after dark.

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