In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Nell Minow makes the case for the Best Supporting Actor of 2016: Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
The first person we see in “Moonlight” is Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug dealer from the projects who befriends a bullied child known as Little. Though Juan appears only in the film’s first act, his influence resonates for us and for Little throughout the story. In a scene of immense visual and emotional power, Juan takes Little into the ocean, cradling him in his arms in an image that evokes a baptism, making him feel safe enough to learn to swim away. Ali shows us Juan’s confidence, his kindness, and his sense of responsibility, all qualities we are not used to seeing in portrayals of drug dealers. Ali makes Juan instantly true for us as he sympathetically asks a young drug dealer how his mother is doing and when tells Little, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.”
In two scenes with Little’s mother Paula, Ali shows us Juan thinking through his navigation of moral complexity. In the first, Juan brings Little home and we see him try to find a way reassure Paula without making her feel judged. In the second, he sells drugs to her, though he knows it will make Little’s life worse. We see in his eyes that he understands the costs of the compromises he has made.
“Moonlight” is a movie about connecting us to the humanity of characters many of us think of as “other”—even characters who think of themselves as outsiders. Ali brings warmth, strength, dignity, and understanding to someone who, like the actor who plays him, knows that only he can decide who he will be.