By Terrilyn Ho | News Editor
On Friday, March 31, Saint Mary’s alumnus and 2017 Academy Award winning actor, Mahershala Ali ‘96, stopped by campus for a screening of “Moonlight” followed by a Q&A discussion. The event was held in the LeFevre Theatre and was sponsored by the High Potential Program and the Office of Alumni Engagement. Doors opened at 3:00 p.m., allowing people to filter in and secure seats before the 4:00 p.m. showing.
Before the screening began, attendees were allowed to write questions directed to Ali on index cards. A few of the student’s inquiries were chosen later on for the Q&A session, where Ali addressed issues of race and Hollywood.
As the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Moonlight” has received critical acclaim within the past year, achieving several records with its success. The film has become the first with an all-black cast, the first LGBTQ+ film, and the second lowest grossing-film domestically to win the Best Picture award. In addition, Ali accomplished a great feat by becoming the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar.
The film is separated into three distinct sections, with each chapter representing a different stage of the protagonist’s life. “Moonlight” began as a short story by Tarell McCraney, who based his work off his own personal stories. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this coming-of-age drama delves into the pervasive struggles that the main character grapples with, in regards to his own sexuality and identity, which perpetuates the emotional and physical abuse he receives.
As a Saint Mary’s alumnus, Ali recalled how his first production on the LeFevre Theatre’s stage was for the production of “Spunk,” which later landed him an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theatre following graduation. After earning his master’s degree from New York University’s acting program, he kept himself busy by taking on several roles. Some of the portrayals he is most known for include Remy Danton in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Colonel Boggs in “The Hunger Games” series, and Cornell Stokes in “Luke Cage.” His extensive experience eventually led him to the role of Juan in “Moonlight,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the SAG Award, and the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The screening of “Moonlight” was followed by a short discussion led by faculty member, Rebecca Engle. As a part of the Performing Arts program here at Saint Mary’s, Engle was able to witness Ali’s growth as a student and performer during his time at Saint Mary’s. As a professor and mentor, Engle was able to foster inspiration for him to pursue acting. For this evening, she selected questions revolving around the film and a few questions from the students.
The first question that Ali was presented was what his first response was to the script and whether he had the experience thinking that this film was not going where he thought it was going to go or whether it was subverting certain stereotypes and expectations. To this, Ali recalled his time during grad school where he was working on a number of plays by Shakespeare, Gibson, and other great works.
Ali said, “The wonderful thing about theatre, especially for people of color is that there was a little reality which I got my first taste of here, where there isn’t as much of an emphasis on race or that people make certain choices because this person is Latino or this person is African-American…Theater has always been a safe space to be very brave.”
After leaving theatre, he began auditioning for TV and film roles, but quickly realized, “People exist in two different spaces, so there’s the reality of what a drug dealer looks like and he’s your cousin, and then there’s the television reality version of that we’ve grown to almost accept as a reality.” Ali explained how people were writing stories about people in Oakland, where there are particular nuances and a culture that people who are on the outside cannot fully capture and accurately portray.
When asked about what fosters creativity at Saint Mary’s, Engle brought up how she had asked him this during his time as a student and he had replied that, “creativity comes from the trees.” Ali reasoned that there are times when we should take a step back and look to the trees and the sky in order to see the bigger picture.