Mahershala Ali made history at the SAG Awards last night. He became the only actor to win the Best Supporting Award twice in the show’s 25-year history. At this point, you can already put Mahershala’s name down on your Oscar ballot for your office pool. He’s the safest bet in a season full of tight races. The question with Mahershala this awards season hasn’t been whether he will win, it’s whether he WANTS to win. 

After the Golden Globes, I wrote that Mahershala might be feeling hesitant about his award season sweep because of the controversy surrounding the film and the fact that he literally has had to apologize for his role in it. Hey, where’s Peter Farrelly’s apology (about the inaccuracies in the film, not about that other thing – what a guy)? If I’m playing our unreliable game of Body Language Assumption™, I don’t think Mahershala wants it. His speech was nice, but it was subdued, which has been his mood throughout the season. He thanked his co-star Viggo Mortenson and gave a quick shout out to Peter Farrelly for “the opportunity.” 

This is important. Mahershala has been asked the same questions over and over this awards circuit. He knows how people feel about Green Book. When he was asked backstage at the SAGs about the historical issues in the film and its backlash, he’s what he said according to Vanity Fair

Ali shared a somewhat surprising revelation: that Dr. Shirley had more screen time than any role he had ever been offered before Green Book.

“Dr. Shirley was the best opportunity that had ever come my way at that point,” he said of the offer to star in the Peter Farrelly film. “That was the most present I had ever been in a project.”

Mahershala Ali may be inches away from winning his second Oscar for a role he has to justify accepting. His justification sheds light on some bigger problems in the industry that he is subtly speaking on without disrespecting the film he’s receiving accolades for. It’s SMART. Mahershala Ali was a working actor for 25 years before he landed Moonlight. No one was offering him leading roles. Green Book was his first. (And he’s still competing in the supporting category.) Mahershala doesn’t have the luxury of sifting through offers of great leading man roles. He has to carefully choose from what’s being offered to him. In the press room after the SAGs, Mahershala shared that after Moonlight, which he’s not in for long keep in mind, he was looking for a leading role. 

“I’m present in that movie [Moonlight] for the first third of it. That had been my largest, most profound experience in my 25 years of working. [Then] to be presented Green Book, and have Dr. Shirley, a multi-dimensional character who had agency…”

Green Book is a palatable story about racism in America. It exists to make white people feel better about their country and solving racism through “talking” without having to address its structural issues. Mahershala Ali didn’t write this story. He didn’t direct it. He chose a role that offered him something he’s probably dreamed of his whole career: to be the star. The bar is so low he just wanted a role with dimension and “agency.” We know that Hollywood isn’t as kind to people who look like Mahershala Ali. For him, a starring role as Don Shirley might have felt like something that wouldn’t come along again. In the future, Mahershala might be looking back on this role like Viola Davis does of The Help, as an unfortunate step on the ladder of her career. The fact that Mahershala Ali has never been a leading man until now is something he kept repeating in the press room:

“The first show I’ve ever been a lead on is on tonight.” 

That was about True Detective. The problematic thing about Green Book is not Mahershala Ali’s involvement, it’s that this story was told carelessly by white people. At the end of his press room questions, a reporter asks Mahershala what roles he wants to see more of in Hollywood and he does something I think is intentional and so intelligent. He doesn’t answer her question directly. Instead, he talks about the people who make the roles, or the people who get to tell the stories. He’s throwing shots at Green Book without anyone even noticing. Well played. 
See below for Mahershala’s full comments.