About a third of the way into Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ introspective three-part story about a gay black man named Chiron, Chiron — then a little boy called, well, “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert) — goes to the beach with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Cuban-American drug dealer-turned-father figure to him. There, Juan teaches him how to swim. It’s a euphoric sequence, a moment that punctuates a chapter in Little’s life and stays with him.
It’s also one that Ali believes defines both characters and shows the film’s intimacy and depth. “I think it’s the happiest moment of their lives,” he tells EW. “Juan is, in some ways, liberating this young man and teaching him something, and he‘s giving Juan so much joy. Juan is a very dark-skinned Cuban-American, and he ended up connecting with African-American culture, but he’s not black, he still stops short. He’s one of the ‘others.’ Juan understands what it’s like to be on the outside, what it’s like to not really fit in your own body, to not totally be embraced by the community in the fullest way, so he finds a lot of peace in trying to create an atmosphere of love and acceptance for Chiron.”
In fact, Ali says he connected so much to the film’s themes of race, masculinity, and isolation that his first time reading the script left him in tears. “Simply put, it was the best thing I’ve ever read,” he recalls. “These are all people we grew up with but never had their space on camera… I remember just being so moved by how specifically these characters were all drawn, how unique the story was, and feeling like I knew these people. These are people in the black community that I’ve seen, that I’ve known. You can read the script and feel the importance of it, from the first read. It was an easy project to sign up for.”
And since debuting at Telluride in September, critics have felt the same way. Not only has Moonlight made waves at festivals, but the film has also entered the (very early) awards conversation — even including predictions that Ali could land on the Oscars ballot. The actor, though, isn’t thinking about accolades just yet. “There’s a joy in the project being received in the way it’s been received,” he says. “Whether or not that turns into physical awards is something I think is bigger than all of us.”
Still, with Moonlight among a handful of noteworthy films this year about African-American identity (think Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Denzel Washington’s Fences), a nod for the film could signal a shift in Hollywood’s attitudes toward diversity after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. And that conversation over representation is a subject Ali has thought a lot about.
“This may be a longer answer, so bear with me,” he warns, taking a deep breath. “The call for diversity is about recognizing that in order to be in the conversation come awards season, it goes back to the content that is being produced. When you have these surprise breakout films that do well, that have good performances in them, it puts a lot of pressure on the Academy to recognize those projects, so it’s more of a conversation about what is greenlit.”
“The other part of it is, and this is true of all people of color, I don’t think #OscarsSoWhite is about there not being enough black people,” he continues. “I think #OscarsSoWhite is about there not truly being enough people of color represented. Unless race is some sort of driving point in the narrative, unless it’s a part of the story that’s very specific to race, we have to get to a point where [anyone] can be in consideration for the leading part… and that can’t be a ‘brave choice.’ You have to open up that pool, because we live in a diverse world, and there are all types of relationships and all types of people.”
And with that, Ali ends on an optimistic note. “Hollywood has to be a better reflection of the world we live in,” he concludes. “It has been the way it is for a hundred years now, so it’s unrealistic for us to have these expectations for it to change overnight, but we have to keep pushing for that change.” He pauses. “I believe the change has begun, and only time will tell if it’s gonna be sustainable, but there is a lot of work to do.” Good thing he’s used to working overtime.
Moonlight opens Friday, Oct. 21.