Oakland-born actor Mahershala Ali took home the Best Supporting Actor prize for Green Book at the Academy Awards Sunday night, becoming the only black actor besides Denzel Washington to win two Oscars.
Ali won his first Oscar, also for a supporting role, back in 2017 for Moonlight. One of his former theater teachers at St. Mary's College said at the time that she was "thrilled" and "proud," adding "It was clear that he is an old soul," from a young age.
Born in Oakland in 1974 and raised in Hayward, Ali attended St. Mary's on a basketball scholarship. His given name was Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, after a biblical prophetic-name child mentioned in the book of Isaiah. His mother, Willicia Gilmore, is an ordained Christian minister.
He would later convert to Islam and change his name to Mahershala Ali, joining the revivalist Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
His breakout role was that of Remy Danton on Netflix's House of Cards, and he also landed the part of Colonel Boggs in The Hunger Games franchise. But in winning two Oscars just two years apart, both for roles in Best Picture-winning films — not to mention starring in HBO's third season of True Detective, the finale of which aired Sunday night — Ali's career is experiencing a meteoric rise.
As the New York Times notes, however, Ali's role in Green Book hasn't come without some controversy.
In the film, Ali portrays Dr. Donald Shirley, a queer black composer who undertook a potentially dangerous tour of the American south in 1962 with the help of a white driver and bodyguard, Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortenson).
Per the Times:
Shirley’s family objected to how he was portrayed in the film, particularly the notion that Shirley was estranged from his relatives. Shirley’s only living brother, Maurice Shirley, once called the movie a “symphony of lies.” Shirley’s nephew said in an interview that Ali called to personally apologize.
Esquire calls the film "saccharine and predictable to the core," noting in particular that the film's namesake travel guide, The Negro Travelers' Green Book, receives "little screen time or analysis" in the film.
It also hasn't been lost on Oscar watchers that the film's premise is a kind of reverse Driving Miss Daisy, itself a dated take on race which won Best Picture the same year that writer/director Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was famously snubbed.
Lee's BlacKkKlansman was a long shot to win Best Picture last night with contenders like Roma in the mix, but it still had a shot — and Lee took home his very first Oscar last night, for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Whether Green Book or BlacKkKlansman ultimately gets looked back upon as the better film remains to be seen, though I can make a pretty educated guess.
As Lee said in a 2015 interview with the Daily Beast, "Nobody’s talking about motherfuckin’ Driving Miss Daisy [anymore]. That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is. Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss motherfuckin’ Daisy."