As we near the Oscar finish line, a clear frontrunner has emerged in the Supporting Actor category. From its Telluride premiere, Mahershala Ali popped out from Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” ensemble in the beating-heart role of the Cuban-born drug-dealer who nurtures the young boy “Little.”
He shot his pivotal supporting part on three successive weekends in Miami. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer who takes the fatherless Little under his wing. Little lives with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and is bullied at school for being “different,” but Juan and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe) offer Little a place to feel safe. Juan becomes a much-needed role model, teaches Little how to swim, gives him advice about the world, and offers him acceptance and validation.
“I have had that same experience,” Ali told me, “where there are several people who have come up in my life at the right time and have made critical contributions to how I see the world and how I see myself. At that moment in time when we feel like the other, we were not the person embraced, not one of the cool kids, not in the club — when you’re that person, it makes you feel smaller, and when they persecute you as a result, that’s a difficult position to be in.
“Who is that person that comes around and says, ‘You are ok, you are worthy, you are special’? That makes all the difference in the world for many of us. Those are the people we appreciate the most.”
So far the Globe and BAFTA nominee has won the Gotham, New York, and Los Angeles Film Critics, Critics Choice, and SAG awards, where he gave a moving speech identifying himself as a Muslim. While he was heading for an Oscar win anyway, that moment will only help push him over the top.
Ali talked to IndieWire about how rare it is for an African-American actor to be able to portray a full person.
Ali also spoke about the powerful feeling of otherness.
The “Moonlight” script was unlike anything Ali had seen before. Working from that foundation helped him find what he needed to evoke an emotional reaction:
This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.
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