Mahershala Ali has outshined the competition, winning the Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance as a kind-hearted drug dealer in Moonlight. This marked his first Oscar win and the first time a Muslim actor has received the golden statue (although Mic notes that previous winner Ellen Burstyn practices “a blend of Sufism, another branch of Islam, and other religions”).
“I want to thank my teachers, my professors. I have so many wonderful teachers, and one thing that they consistently told me… was that it wasn’t about you. It isn’t about you, it’s about these characters,” he said while accepting the honor at the 89th annual awards ceremony Sunday night. “You’re in service to these stories and these characters, and I’m so blessed to have an opportunity. It was about Juan, it was about Chiron, it was about Paula.
After his win, the first award handed out Sunday, Ali told reporters backstage that “Moonlight was the best thing that has ever come across my desk.” The character “was on the page, really spoke to my heart, and I felt like I could hear him. I could sort of envision his presence. And I really had a real sense of who that person was. Enough to start the journey, and I really wanted to be a part of that project,” he said, before joking, “I’m just so fortunate that Idris [Elba] and David Oyelowo left me a job. It was very very kind of them.”
A lyrical meditation on racial, masculine, and sexual identity, Moonlight tells the story of a young, gay black man (played across the film’s three chapters by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) coming of age in Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. Ali, 43, portrays Juan, a local dealer who becomes an unlikely father figure to the boy in the first section.
Barry Jenkins directed the film and wrote the screenplay, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
The presumptive favorite going into the night, Ali beat out Dev Patel in Lion, Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water, Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals, and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. The Oscar is his first, on his first nomination.
Speaking to EW in the fall, Ali said he was drawn to Moonlight for its nuanced, authentic portrayal of a world rarely glimpsed on the big screen. “Simply put, it was the best thing I’ve ever read,” he said. “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.”