Back in December, around the time that the New York Film Critics Circle awarded its supporting actor prize to Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, I had a conversation with a fellow member of the group that’s nagged at me ever since. It began with a question: Why Ali and not Trevante Rhodes? Critics seemed to be struggling to figure out how to reward all of Moonlight’s fine male performances, and they didn’t know what category Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert belonged in. There was a sense that it was easiest to honor Ali because his character, Juan, like Janelle Monáe’s Teresa, has the closest thing to a constant in the life of Little, the boy who would become Chiron, the teenager who would become Black. I made a comparison to Patricia Arquette and what her character represents in Boyhood, and my colleague saw Ali performing a hat trick all the way to the Oscar stage.
If you believe, like I do, that Ali’s near-clean sweep of this award season’s supporting actor citations feels almost compulsory in ways that Viola Davis’s does not, then you recognize him to possibly be more vulnerable than Casey Affleck on Oscar night. And if you didn’t grasp this vulnerability when Ali lost the Golden Globe to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who wasn’t even nominated for the SAG or Oscar, then you must have when Dev Patel won the BAFTA. Some might dismiss the Lion actor’s win as an example of Brits padding their own homegrown talent on the back, but to do so is to diminish the power of Patel’s depiction of his immigrant character’s existential anguish.
Then again, one of the two times that BAFTA hasn’t predicted the Academy Award winner in this category in the last decade—when Geoffrey Rush won across the pond for The King’s Speech but The Fighter’s Christian Bale followed up his SAG win with an Oscar lap—may actually signal a victory for Ali. If there’s a parallel to be made here, it’s that Hollywood, too, is prone to patting its own homegrown talent on the back, so a win for the Oakland-born Ali, representing a film that’s very much, like The Fighter, about a distinctly American experience, makes sense. That Ali’s performance so self-effacingly articulates the humanity of a man that so many in our country would like to pretend is non-existent only helps him. As did his moving “I am a Muslim” speech at the SAGs. Because the prospect of him delivering another one just like it on the Oscar stage feels, one month later, even more necessary.
Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Could Win: Dev Patel, Lion
Should Win: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water