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Moonlight's Mahershala Ali becomes the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar

Film

Why Mahershala Ali "mourns" the loss of his 'Moonlight' character

@Russellisation

The list of the best movies of the 21st century is no easy list to put together, with hundreds of movies vying for the top spot including Roy Andersson’s existential masterpiece About Endlessness, David Fincher’s timely biographical film The Social Network and Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. One film that is sure to be lingering around those very top spots is Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Best Picture-winner Moonlight, a heartbreaking story of racial and sexual prejudice. 

Well-known for its Oscar mishap in which Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was initially called up to receive the award for Best Picture, only for the mistake to be quickly addressed, Moonlight remains one of the most influential Oscar-winners of the past decade. Starring Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris and Ashton Sanders, Moonlight tells the story of a man struggling with his identity in every part of his growing life, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. 

Having honed his craft creating several short films along with his low-key feature film debut Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, director Barry Jenkins lacked professional experience when he took on Moonlight in 2016 though proceeded to create a perfectly poised creative masterpiece. Jenkins is now considered one of the leading voices of contemporary cinema, having gone on to direct If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018 and TV series The Underground Railroad whilst preparing to take on a Lion King prequel for Disney in the near future. 

Leading Moonlight for a large chunk of the film’s runtime, Mahershala Ali has said since the release of the 2016 film that he’s never felt as connected to a character as he did with his role as Juan in the film. “A lot of actors wish they were having a visceral response to the scripts that they’re reading. And the first time I read it, I think everyone involved will tell you they got really choked up and just really connected to this story and these characters,” Ali told Good Morning America in 2017. 

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Playing a kind-hearted mentor to the film’s protagonist, Ali’s character helps him deal with the ongoing struggles from his drug-addicted mother who makes his home life a struggle to the bullies who torment him at school. Connecting emotionally to the hard-hitting tale, he told the news outlet, “I think in some way all of us have been ‘the other,’ the person on the outside, maybe not persecuted to the degree that this young man is, but I think we all want to be loved and embraced and need connection and support and family and mentorship”.

Ali, who has since appeared in the Oscar-winning film Green Book, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Alita: Battle Angel misses the visceral connection he had with his Moonlight character, reporting that he “kept thinking about Juan and really missing that character”. Explaining that he went through a period of “Missing him during the process of shooting it, and then mourning him later,” Barry Jenkins’ film had a significant impact on the actor who continues to prove himself as one of the finest working actors in Hollywood.