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Jamaican’s story gets gold

Green Book, the comedy drama about Jamaican-born classical pianist Dr Don Shirley, was one of the big winners at Sunday’s Golden Globes in Los Angeles. The film took home three trophies from its five nominations.

It won Best Picture – Musical or Comedy; Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali; and Best Screenplay written by Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga.

The film was also nominated for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Viggo Mortensen) and Best Director (Farrelly).

According to Jamaica Music Museum curator Herbie Miller, the win by Green Book again highlights the global recognition that Jamaica and Jamaicans continue to attract.

“Ironically, I have not yet seen the film. However, there are some who criticise that there is no reference to him being Jamaican. From what I know of Dr Shirley, he has never renounced his ‘Jamaicaness’. But this is yet another Jamaican being recognised globally, and it shows that we have been doing it for many years. It is not a recent phenomenon which began with our athletes and reggae artistes,” Miller, a musicologist, told the Jamaica Observer.

“Shirley was always proud of his Jamaican heritage, just like [another] talented pianist Wynton Kelly who was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Jamaican parents, but always saw himself as Jamaican. This is despite his very urbanite lifestyle where he rubbed shoulders with the greats of music and society in general. The likes of music greats Sarah Vaughn, Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn and former United States President John F Kennedy were all his close friends and associates,” he continued.

While the film is being lauded by critics, Dr Shirley’s family does not share the same sentiments. They are distancing themselves from the way he’s been presented on the silver screen.

Ali addressed it in his acceptance speech on Sunday.

“My job is always the same. I have to look at what I am responsible for, all the prayers and energy and work. I’m not the one who is gonna necessarily throw all that away over things that I have no control and have nothing to do with. I respect Dr Shirley and his family and I wish them well. I just have to continue to do my job as I move on to my next project. In this case, I didn’t know that they were around… At the end of the day, you wish everybody was happy. I don’t want anybody to be upset about anything or to be offended in any capacity,” he said.

Born in Kingston on January 29, 1927, Shirley was introduced to music by his mother and gave his first public performance at three. At nine, he moved to the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, where he studied piano and music theory with Mittolovski at Leningrad Conservatory of Music and later at Catholic University in Washington, DC.

According to reports, Shirley played his first professional gig at age 18 with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1945. He would then go on to develop a unique musical genre of his own blending jazz, Negro spirituals and classical music.

He appeared as a soloist with several world-renowned orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the National Symphony, and the NBC Symphony. His compositions have been performed by the London Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.

Shirley died on April 6, 2013. He was 86.

The film is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green, informally called the Green Book, a mid-20th-century guidebook for African-American travellers to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.

Green Book had its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, where it won the People’s Choice Award.