Although this is not a critique of the movie, per se, I will say that I think that the film was excellent and I have recommended it to others because it has everything – heart, depth, and humor.
There is a bit of controversy over the use of creative license. It appears that Dr. Shirley has surviving family members who are calling foul to the portrayal of their deceased brethren. Movies based on true events are always problematic because people seem to forget that “based on” most often means ‘loosely based with some additions or subtractions or entire exaggerations for dramatic effect.’ It’s the movies. Folks should keep that in mind.
Regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal of this man, the reason I am writing this is because of how deeply the film impacted me personally.
To give some context, the film is set in the U.S. in the 1960s. Mahershala Ali plays the world-class, classically trained pianist, Dr. Donald W. Shirley and Viggo Mortenson, who plays Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, is hired to be his driver on a tour through the “deep South.” Because of the era, the different backgrounds of the two men, and the journey into the South, you enter the movie anticipating racial tension.
But it wasn’t the countless indignities Dr. Shirley had to endure that got to me. There were two moments in the movie that just shook me because they spoke directly to instances in my life.
The first scene involves the two men traveling down a country road when the car overheats. Tony Lip gets out of the car to attend the radiator. Dr. Shirley steps out of the car to have a smoke and wait.
The car breaks down right in front of a field being worked by Black sharecroppers. They were dressed in garb reminiscent of the antebellum South and I thought to myself, ‘This could be the 1860s instead of the 1960s.’
There is a man working the land who first sees Dr. Shirley. Then one after another those tending the land stop and stare at this man, so elegant in his ascot and tailored suit smoking a cigarette while a white man (he’s Italian but it would make no difference) fixes the car.
The scene is so subtle.
It is a scene void of dialogue. Everything is communicated through the eyes. In Ali’s eyes, you see the distance – emotional, psychological, economic, and even cultural – between him and the Blacks standing in the field.
But it was their eyes that took my breath.
The expressions on those faces were that of astonishment and disbelief; like they had never seen a Black man like him before; like they did not know that such a thing existed or could exist. And that existence was a mockery of and an affront to their own existence.
When I saw their faces I thought, ‘I know that look. God, I know that look.’
It is a look that I can never ever forget.
New Year’s 2003 my sister and I traveled to Brazil and we, along with three thousand other people were celebrating up and down the streets of Copacabana, Rio. In the midst of the dancing came two little girls pan-handling; they couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. One was Portuguese-Brazilian and the other was Afro-Brazilian. Brazil has a complicated racial identity but the same holds true there as does almost everywhere else in the world – the darker the skin the lower the person on the social strata.
This little girl, the Afro-Brazilian, had a complexion close to my own, deep brown. A woman with my skin tone in Rio is immediately assumed to be a domestic worker. This little girl looked at me with eyes wide as disks in a naked state of disbelief. And I wondered which part of it was it hard for her to believe: that I am a Black woman of dark complexion who was clearly not poor, clearly free to be out enjoying myself with everyone else, and clearly not a maid? The sense that I got from her little face was that she had never seen a dark skin woman that free and happy.
They were begging for money and they were alone. Where were their parents? They were just little girls walking the streets of Copacabana on their own. My heart broke particularly for the Afro-Brazilian child because she seemed more wary and apprehensive than the other child.
My thoughts at that moment were for that little girl and how desperately I wanted to see her smiling and happy; like a child her age ought to be. I motioned to them and my sister and we put the two girls between us so that they could dance with us and be protected. The Portuguese-Brazilian child laughed and smiled and danced freely. The Afro-Brazilian child’s eyes never left me and she danced but with caution and she never smiled – she looked too nervous to smile. We pressed a few reais (Brazilian currency) into their little hands and hugged them tightly before they went on their way through the crowd.
What can you do at times like that when you are a tourist, understanding your privilege as a tourist, faced with the poverty and suffering of the poor who can’t just hop on a plane and leave as you can? A few dollars just doesn’t cut it.
As I said, I will never forget that child’s expression. And the way those sharecroppers stared at Dr. Shirley served as a reminder for me never to forget.
© 2018 Tamara Jefferies.