Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Movies like ‘Green Book’ are not meant to be historically accurate

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As we head into the heart of Oscar season, the film that stands to rake in the awards is the controversial Green Book, which stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.

Basketball icon and best-selling author, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar feels the controversy is misplaced because despite these films seemingly being based in historical facts, they are still heavily rooted in fiction.

“Current historical films like First Man, The Favourite, On the Basis of Sex, Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, BlacKkKlansman and Mary Queen of Scots purport to tell us about important historic people and events, to present the facts that explain why the subject is so significant,” Abdul-Jabbar, who appeared in numerous movies and TV programs in the 1970s and 80s, said in a column in the Hollywood Reporter. “Yet a Google search of each of these titles will produce a long list of factual inaccuracies.

“And that’s OK — because these films are not about facts, they are about something much more elusive and important: truth,” he added. “Specifically, they are about how the events of the past illuminate the choices we face in the present.”

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The movie, based around the 1962 relationship between black musicianDonald Shirley and his white driver, a racist Italian New Yorker named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, was already mired in controversy over Mortensen’s use of the n-word during a November screening of the film in Los Angeles prior to its release.

The film itself falls into the “white savior” narrative where Lip would often bail Shirley out of a number of perilous situations with White racists. The film has drawn the ire of many, including Shirley’s family, as the film itself portrayed Shirley as being aloof and detached from his family and the Black community when he was, in fact, friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.and was very active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Shirley, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 86, was also very close with his family – particularly his brothers.

“At that point, he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact,” Dr. Maurice Shirley said to Shadow and Act. “One of the things Donald used to remind me in his later years was he literally raised me.

“There wasn’t a month where I didn’t have a phone call conversation with Donald,” he added.

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Abdul-Jabbar explained that he felt this huge gap between reality and fiction was because Shirley was being portrayed as a character as opposed to the real man himself.

“The character of Shirley is alienated from his sense of self-identity as a musician who wants to play classical music but is forced to play popular music and as a black man who is too educated to be embraced by some blacks but still treated by whites as less than human,” he says. “He’s also alienated from his own sexuality. He has so much to hide from the outside world that he’s created an acceptable persona for that world.

“To show him cut off from his family, whatever the facts, is an effective way to emphasize the loneliness and despair that people like him endure,” he added.

Abdul-Jabbar says that movies like Green Book, while offensive to numerous Black people, are not specifically meant for us as much as it is for trying to finally enlighten white people who still live in denial of racism’s grip on the past and present.

“Our perception of racism will not be changed because we live it daily,” he said. “We also know that after viewing the movie, some white people will be self-congratulatory and dismissive by saying, ‘Well, at least it’s not like that anymore.’

“But others will be moved to see how those events in history have shaped our current challenges,” he continued. “Black people watching Green Book will recognize Dr. Shirley’s painful journey and be inspired by his accomplishments no more and no less than if the story had been from his point of view.”