Mahershala Ali ’96 Wins Oscar for Green Book

Marhershala Ali accepts his Oscar The remarkable talents of actor Mahershala Ali ’96 were recognized once again with an Oscar trophy. At Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, the Saint Mary’s alumnus took home the award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the late acclaimed pianist Donald Shirley in the film Green Book, which also picked up gold statuettes for Best Original Screenplay and the night’s biggest honor, Best Motion Picture.

Ali had been the favorite. Even before the words “And the winner is” were said during the best supporting actor presentation, many had expected him to win, primarily because of the critical acclaim he had already received for his performance. In early January, he was awarded a Golden Globe Award, and more accolades followed, including best actor prizes from the Screen Actors Guild, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Critics' Choice Awards.

Performing Arts Professor Rebecca Engle, Ali’s first drama teacher, said Oscar expectations for Ali made perfect sense. “It's a richly deserved win. Mahershala’s craft and artistry are, as always, impeccable. His rapport and respect for co-star Viggo Mortensen lift their onscreen relationship beyond the limits of a conventional Hollywood script.”

Set in the early 1960s, Green Book tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Shirley and white former nightclub bouncer Frank Anthony Vallelonga (played by Mortensen, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance). The two men are thrown together when Vallelonga is hired to drive Shirley through the segregated South for a concert tour and must rely on The Negro Motorist Green Book for guidance. More commonly known by its truncated name, Green Book, the travel guide helped African Americans find lodging, restaurants, and businesses that would assist people of color in reducing the indignities of the Jim Crow realities across the nation.

Last fall, a special advance screening of Green Book was held at the Rheem Theatre in Moraga to benefit the College’s Moonlight Scholarship. Inspired by Ali and funded by private donors, the Moonlight Scholarship was established by SMC in 2017 to honor rising seniors and benefit incoming first-year students in the College’s High Potential (HP) Program, which is designed to help first-generation college students succeed in pursuing their higher education goals. A conversation with Ali and the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, and producer, Jim Burke, followed the screening. At Saint Mary’s, the trio met with students in the College’s HP Program and students in the Performing Arts Department.

During his campus visit, Ali spoke about the film’s historical context, noting that while he had family involved in the struggle for civil rights and has roots in the South, he wasn’t aware of the segregation era travel guide. “I didn't know about the Green Book. I had very close family really involved in the movement who talked about a lot of things and shared a lot of information. But that was something that we definitely weren’t taught. And it wasn’t something that organically popped up in speaking about home and family,” said Ali.

Even so, Ali surmised that elders in his family knew of the travel guide and used it. “I am confident that my grandfather or grandmother—somebody—had to use that to try to navigate going back home to Texas where my family’s from originally. But I’m really glad I get to be a part of a story that gets to make people more aware, that this is part of our history.”

With an eye toward history, Ali’s latest triumph is also notable. Following Denzel Washington, Ali is the second African American actor to win two Oscars. While Washington’s wins were 12 years apart (2002 and 1990), Ali’s occurred within a three-year span: In 2017, he won the award for Moonlight. Additional cultural firsts at the awards ceremony included Oscars for African American artists Ruth Carter (costume design) and Hannah Beachler (production design) for the blockbuster film Black Panther—directed by former Saint Mary’s student Ryan Coogler.