Why Mahershala Ali Stands By His Controversial Green Book Role
Mahershala Ali earned plenty of accolades for his starring role as Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book — including his latest win at the SAG Awards for Best Actor on Sunday — but the project has not been free from controversy.
To get you up to speed: Green Book, which is based on a true story, tells the tale of Italian-American bouncer Tony Lipp who became the driver of African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a tour of venues through the segregated south in the '60s. Shirley’s family slammed the film saying the biopic is inaccurate, and that filmmakers didn’t reach out to them to validate the content within it. Shirley’s brother, Maurice Shirley, even called the movie’s portrayal of Don “a symphony of lies” in an interview with Shadow and Act.
Ali apologized to the family after they voiced their dismay about the project. “I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally,” Edwin Shirley told the news site. “He called me and my Uncle Maurice...he apologized profusely if there had been any offense. What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’”
Ali is still standing by his decision to take on the role in the film, which has also nabbed five Oscar nominations. After winning the SAG Award for best actor in a supporting role, he stepped into the SAG Awards press room, and said that not only was it the best role he’s been offered to date, but that whether he is taking on a role in film that is nonfiction or fiction, his job is to assume that content is the truth in order to portray the character in the best way possible.
“Dr. Shirley was the best opportunity that had ever come my way at that point,” Ali said. “You gotta think, a year-and-a-half ago, coming off of Moonlight, which was an amazing experience, but I'm present in that movie for the first third of it. And that had sort of been my largest and most profound experience in my 25 years of working.”
“So to be presented Green Book and have Dr. Shirley, a multidimensional character who had agency, who chose...no one else was doing that in this time,” he continued. “He didn't have to hire a white driver, he chose to hire a white driver in 1962 to be in the south and have a white man opening your door and carrying your bags and for him to be in that relationship, to be the person in power, for him to be as talented and as intelligent as he was, the dignity in which he carried himself with, his own personal struggle to keep his life and things about his life private because for those things to be public, it would not have been embraced.”
"That was the most present I had ever been in a project, and so I felt like I could do something with that character with the right help,” he continued. “The right help for me was working off of Viggo and having Chris Bowers cover what I couldn't do on the piano. In terms of the historical accuracy of the film, I think some of the things that are questioned can be answered by listening to Dr. Shirley talk, which everybody is privy to do and some of the articles are snippets that were more recently released.”
“So, I think you kind of need people to go back and see what Dr. Shirley has to say for himself, and sort of circle back and if there's questions about the accuracy or of something I think there's the right people who can address that, but I think my job is always the same,” he continued. “I have to assume whether it's fiction or non-fiction that it's the truth, and what I mean by that is I have to approach it as if it's the truth. My job is to make sure that my work is as deep as possible — and that I'm as connected to my character as possible — and that I first and foremost believe myself so that I have a shot at an audience believing me.”
Despite the controversy, taking on the role was a risk that has paid off for Ali. In addition to his SAG Award, he also won a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for portraying Dr. Shirley, and also locked in an Academy Award nomination.