We Need a Donald Shirley Movie
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in the new "More than a Moment" section available on Netflix. “When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we also mean ‘Black storytelling matters,’” Netflix said in a tweet. “With an understanding that our commitment to true, systemic change will take time - we’re starting by highlighting powerful and complex narratives about the Black experience.” Hulu and Amazon Prime Video also now have dedicated sections that focus on Black stories as well.
With the collective commitment of the streaming services, there is reason to be hopeful even more Black stories and Black storytelling will be produced. Among the many Black lives and stories that deserve dedicated attention from Fannie Lou Hamer to Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, I'm looking forward to the Donald Shirley movie, and the Shirley family story.
Dr Donald Shirley the innovator and trailblazer, does already have a fictional character created in his name in the movie Green Book. I am grateful for Brooke Obie's piece, How 'Green Book' And The Hollywood Machine Swallowed Donald Shirley Whole on the site
Shadow and Act for exploring Donald Shirley in a more genuine context. After reading Obie's inspired writing, I wanted to find out what else was available on the family story. Thankfully some of Dr Shirley's friends have written op-eds remembering the complex and giving man they knew. The Shirley family has also spoken out about the man they knew as a brother and uncle. You can watch a video interview with his brother Maurice Shirley here. You can hear Donald Shirley in his own words in this lecture by Arica L. Coleman, Ph.D.
In an interview with Britni Danielle in Essence, the Shirley family said that they would "love for a filmmaker like Ava DuVernay or Spike Lee to tell his story for real." Looking forward to seeing more of this story, a real American story, a Black family story, onscreen soon.
For more, here is what I pulled together from available sources on why this would make a compelling film. You can listen to the audio version or see text below.
Don’t Stop Get it, Get It – The Donald Shirley Story
In this episode, I wonder – what would a movie about Donald Shirley look like?
Donald Shirley deserves his own story to be told his own movie. Green Book if you loved it, didn’t see it, can’t stand it is not a movie about Dr Shirley. That movie has their version of Donald Shirley taken from a very brief moment of an amazing life. But Green Book is not really Donald Shirley’s story.
Green Book is to Donald Shirley as an Avengers movie is to Black Panther. In one you just get a glimpse of T’Challa, a triple lutz and a quick cut against a background of a lot of Captain America & some Black Widow. In the other, you get Wakanda, you get Mama Black Panther Angela Basset, the brilliant funny sis Letitia Wright with jokes and the gadgets, and Danai Gurira, and Michael B Jordan and the power and glory ….
And just like we needed a full Black Panther movie, we need a full Donald Shirley story.
He had super powers – Igor Stravinsky said Donald Shirley virtuosity is worthy of Gods.
Duke Ellington said Donald Shirley was the only piano player he would give up his bench for
And a Donald Shirley movie would, like Black Panther be visually striking with a luxurious sense of place and pride. Like Black Panther, it would also be a story about a family legacy, and a fight for a nation. It would be the story of a man on a mission, for his art, his people and his country.
It would be the story of a family and an innovator shining his light through surrounding horror.
It would have Donald Shirley – a forerunner of Prince, an American original, a man who created his own genre of music so he could play as he put it “the Black experience through music with dignity.”
And it It would also have a roll call of the best supporting characters:
Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, JFK & Jackie Kennedy, RFK, MLK and Coretta Scott King, Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte, Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, and James Baldwin.
It would have locations on locations:
Jamaica, Howard U, FAMU, Chicago, Harlem, Haiti, Milan, Leningrad, and countries to be named!
This movie I am calling Don’t Stop, Get it, Get it The Donald Shirley story.
Every super hero needs a backstory. Whoever makes this movie would have the benefit of talking to the Shirley family to get the full picture. Based on what I read, here is snapshot of what this origins story could look like:
It begins with Donald’s parents Stella and Edwin Samuel Shirley. Two immigrants from Jamaica– Stella a teacher, and Edwin an Episcopal minister. Raising their family of 3 boys in Pensacola, Florida – in a house on the beach. Filling their home with love, music and
wisdom and protecting them as best they could from the culture of minstrelsy, Jim Crow, and terror.
Stella teaches Donald to play piano and good sense. A prodigy, he plays in his fathers’ church when he is only 3. He is offered the opportunity to study and train in Russia but the family keeps him close to home.
When Donald is just 9 and Stella is 32, she dies in the hospital two days after giving birth to her fourth son, Maurice.
I don’t know the exact cause of her death, but in an interview Donald Shirley interview said she did not get the care she deserved because of the color of her skin. Without knowing exactly what happened - even today in 2019 black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die from a pregnancy related complication.
But Stella and Father Shirley provided a strong foundation for their sons, that her death did not break. The two oldest Shirley sons Calvin and Edwin went on to become medical doctors, some of the first Black doctors in Florida. The two youngest, Donald and Maurice received academic doctorates.
So that is not 1 not 2 not 3 but 4 doctors from the Shirley home. And whatever they received in their home and church and community empowered them to use their gifts for the greater good. These sons were not just about personal success, they were part of the masses fighting to make America a better land.
The oldest, Dr Calvin Shirley, likely remembering how how his mother passed, became an obstetrician who fought for better and greater access to health care in under served Black communities. Throughout his career he successfully delivered thousands of babies.
Dr Edwin Shirley, became a friend of Dr King and would host him in his Miami home for a rest. Edwin and a group of others in would take Dr King fishing and allow him to be Martin for a few days.
Maurice Shirley, the youngest, I don’t know much about – but I look forward to learning about him from whoever makes this film.
And Donald Shirley.
He participated in the Selma and Washington marches, he performed benefit concerts for HBCUs.
His nephew Edwin described him as someone with a fiery personality, totally devoted to the uplifting of African American people, who would often stand up for himself and others against racist oppression.
Donald Shirley, from his travels across the country and abroad, from his talks with James Baldwin and friendship with Dr King knew what America was and what it could be. Listen to him in Josef Astor’s footage, say “This is America” as he describes what happened to Paul Robeson. His voice and eyes just cut with power.
Would love to see this story and this man’s life brought to life. He would be an amazing complex character.
His love for music and how that carried him through being denied a place on the classical stage.
His drive for excellence.
His curiosity – I read in several places on how he could talk with authority about art and culture and almost anything.
He is analog man, sustained by music, books, conversation, and friendships. Long conversations with friends, about everything.
And – would love to know more about his music. He created his own genre from classical elements, folk songs, spirituals, and blues. His music is subtle and powerful.
His niece Karole described it best, she said:
"When my uncle played you could feel his spirit. You could feel the spirit of our ancestors, the promise of this country, all the different parts of world that he had been to.
You could feel his triumph. You could feel his tragedy. You could feel his misery. You could feel his ministry. You could feel everything through his music."