On Oscar Sunday the press room was packed with journalists from around the world and many of us began our collective day hopeful that director Spike Lee would take the big win, Best Picture, for his masterpiece “BlacKkKlansman.” There was something comforting when Lee finally won the first Oscar of his long and impressive career, sharing Best Adapted Screenplay with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmot. The warm feeling was still floating high and strong when Lee lost in the Best Director category when Alfonso Cuarón won because there was still hope that he and the film, “BlacKkKlansman,” would take the big win, Best Picture.
Then … something happened that stunned us all. The cameras caught Lee’s response when Julia Roberts opened the red envelope (did you catch the pause?) and read that the Best Picture winner for the 2019 Oscar was … “Green Book.” And to date, if you do a Google search, all of the major media outlets have weighed in on Lee’s response.
Inside the press room, the audible grumble, rumble and the look of stunned faces of reporters echoed the feeling that the Academy voters missed an opportunity to honor the work of a great storyteller, Spike Lee. “Spike was robbed” was shouted—by whom, I don’t know. I was too stunned to speak and I felt my stomach lurch and a lump started forming inside my throat.
Seated to my right was Brooke Obie, the managing editor for the Black talent and entertainment
media site, Shadow And Act. Obie’s lovely face went from shock to resolve, morphing into Mother Africa Goodness-Warrior and reminding me of every Black woman of valor who stood up when knocked down—who won despite having the deck stacked against them. As the assembled begin to use Google to prepare their questions for the “Green Book” team, Obie’s article “How Green Book and Hollywood Swallowed Donald Shirley Whole” quickly became the topic being discussed … and I was right next to the lady, herself.
Keeping it “100” in my opinion, I wanted “BlacKkKlansman” to win but secretly hoped that “Black Panther” would take it all the way home. I also feel strongly that the screenplay for “Green Book” is excellent and it remains one of my favorite reads. When I suggested to Obie that she read the screenplay later her response was “hard pass” and at that moment, I understood how beautiful and powerful the sisterhood can be.
Inside the press room, each outlet is given a card with an assigned number. To ask a question we are asked to raise that card, high, and if called on to keep that card higher and to wait for the microphone to make its the way to us.
The moment the “Green Book” team walked in, warrior Obie’s hand shot up. I think she stood up. I know that I looked up. A chill ran down my spine when her number was called.
Here’s what my colleague asked the “Green Book” creative team. This is not edited.
Q. I’m wondering if since Donald Shirley was omitted from the thank you speech, that you had anything that you wanted to say about Donald Shirley? And, also, I’m wondering if the controversy surrounding the storytelling and the lens through which the story was told will change the way that you tell stories in the future.
A. (Nick Vallelonga) You get nervous up there. Donald Shirley, obviously, we all thanked him. Mahershala, we gave him a great thank you. Don, if you’re discussing the Don Shirley family thing, that falls on me; but Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone. He told me the story that he wanted to tell. He protected his private life and all the things, other things about him, miraculous things about him. He’s an amazing man. He told me, ‘If you’re going to tell the story, you tell it from your father, me. No one else. Don’t speak to anyone else. That’s how you have to make it.’ And, also, he told me, ‘Don’t make it until after I pass away.’
So I just kept my word to that man. I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley’s family. I didn’t even know they really existed until after we were making the film, and we contacted his estate for music; and then the filmmakers, we invited them all to screenings and discussions.
But I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley’s wishes. I’m an Italian from New York. They call that a stand-up guy. I kept my word to the man, and that’s the reason for that. So, but Don Shirley and my father together had an amazing story together and went on the road and changed each other, and I think that comes out. That’s why the film is what it is. It’s because of both of them.
Here’s what I asked Brooke Obie on behalf of the New York Amsterdam News about the “Green Book” teams’ response.
Amsterdam News: Is what Nick Vallelonga said true, about the Shirley family?
Brooke Obie: According to what the family told Shadow And Act, what was missing from the movie was the real Donald Shirley. In his place was a flattened character trope, an instrument for a white man’s “growth” on his journey to be less racist.
AMNEWS: What does this win mean, really?
BO: This win doesn’t mean that “Green Book” is the “Best Picture of the Year.” It means that Hollywood still believes Black lives only matter as much as they can be used in service to white savior narratives. “Green Book’s” win solidifies that Black content creators must continue to find ways to disrupt the systems that diminish and disregard our histories and our icons. We must continue to tell our own stories and reclaim our narratives outside of white validation, which Shadow And Act has been doing and celebrating for a decade.
AMNEWS: What film do you think should have won Best Picture?
BO: There was no more culturally significant film of 2018 than “Black Panther.” We can’t even measure the depths of its impact just yet. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is another powerful, beautiful film that showcases the transcendent power of Black love. Thankfully, Shadow And Act’s 2019 RISING Awards—which highlighted 32 emerging stars in Black Hollywood on February 22—honored Beale Street writer and director Barry Jenkins with our 2019 Game-Changer Award. Shadow And Act created this awards ceremony not only to celebrate these talented entertainers who are moving the culture forward with their work but also to build community so that we can all be less reliant on the validation of others in order to have successful careers.