The True Story Behind 'Green Book'

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.

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.

Since 2013, author and cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor has been traveling around the country, chronicling the sites of the actual businesses featured in the guide.

Taylor has cataloged more than 9,600 Green Book listings in 48 states. She says less than 5 percent of the businesses featured in the guide are still open.

“There were several other guides that served black travelers; only one before the Green Book was published called ‘Hackly and Harrison’s.’ But, out of all the black travel guides, the Green Book was in publication for the longest and had the largest exposure and distribution channels so it was the most popular and successful,” Taylor told

By 1962, "The Negro Motorist Green Book" had reached a circulation of two million people.

The movie follows the two as Lip, who is depicted as a casual racist, gets to know Doc during their journey through the south, with the green book as their guide. Doc reshapes Lip's view.

Vallelonga’s son, Nick is a co-writer and producer on the film. He recalled meeting Shirley as a child.

"I met him when I was 5. I remember when I walked into his apartment over Carnegie Hall. There were floor to ceiling windows. He was like Liberace meets Beethoven and he came out in this long African robe and he was very, very interested that my father was a family man," Nick remembered in an interview with Universal Pictures.

Nick says he'd long wanted to make a film about his dad and Shirley. "This was a big story my father told me that I had on my mind basically my whole life. And luckily I had tape recorded my father," he stated.

According to Nick, Shirley granted his request with one condition.

"I got back in touch with Dr. Shirley as an adult and got his side of the story. He wanted me to tell the whole story. Everything that he told me, everything my father said. But he wanted me to wait until he had passed away."

Director Peter Farrelly helped comb through Nick’s collection.

"We had a lot of material to go with. Hours and hours of tapes and we also had all the letters that he had written home on the trip and we listened to the story," Farrelly said.

However, Shirley's family maintains most of the movie is untrue or embellished.

Speaking to 1A's Movie Club right before the film's release last fall, 82-year-old Maurice Shirley — Doc Shirley's youngest and last living brother — told the podcast he refused to watch it.

Maurice stated “Green Book” was full of lies and claimed Doc Shirley was neither estranged from his family nor the black community.

Doc Shirley’s niece, Carole Kimble, echoed the sentiment, calling “Green Book "a white man's depiction of a black man's life."

The film also depicts a gay sexual encounter Doc has during the tour, which raised questions about his sexuality.

Shirley married once and divorced, never having children. Nick said Shirley never came out in real life.

Nick maintains the story is true, and that only the timelines were bent. In real life, the pair's trip only lasted about two months. In the movie, it adds up to about a year.

Vallelonga’s bouncing career inadvertently led him to become an actor. While working at New York City’s Copacabana in the 1970s, director Francis Ford Coppola showed up looking for Italian-American extras for his film “The Godfather.” Coppola found him to be just the right fit.  

Vallelonga also took on several other roles in “Goodfellas,” “Donnie Brasco”  and The Sopranos. Shirley continued to write, compose and record.

In the early ‘70s, Shirley developed tendonitis in his right hand. According to, that caused him to drop out of the public eye for nearly a decade. A 1982 New York Times article said he was staging a comeback and playing regular gigs in Greenwich Village.

Shirley released his last album in 2001.

Shirley and Vallelonga are the only two people who can truly refute or confirm what's factual in the film. They both died within three months of each other in 2013.

“Green Book” is up for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

The 91st Academy Awards airs on Feb. 24.