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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
breaking the mould

Mahershala Ali's Oscar win last night was a truly historic one

The actor became the first Muslim actor to win one.

HEAVILY-BACKED FAVOURITE Mahershala Ali won the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of a drug dealer in coming-of-age drama Moonlight — becoming the first Muslim film star to pick up a golden statuette.

A first-time nominee, the 43-year-old actor saw off competition from Britain’s Dev Patel, veteran US actors Jeff Bridges and Michael Shannon and newcomer Lucas Hedges.

“I want to thank my teachers, my professors,” Ali said.

“One thing that they consistently told me… ‘It’s not about you. It’s about these characters. You are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters’.”

He thanked his fellow cast members — and his wife, who gave birth to their first child, a girl, just days earlier.

Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight tells the life story of a young African-American struggling to find his place as he grows up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

In a brief but acclaimed performance, Ali’s drug dealer Juan imparts life lessons to the protagonist Chiron that help him survive in prison and in the outside world.

The role won Oakland-born Ali best supporting actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, although he lost out to Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals) at the Golden Globes.

The 89th Academy Awards - Press Room - Los Angeles Ian West / PA Images Mahershala Ali with the award for Best Actor in a Supporting role for Moonlight. Ian West / PA Images / PA Images

‘It’s not new’

Ali, a Muslim convert since 1999 with a Christian minister for a mother, joined the minority Ahmadiyya Community, a movement seen as heretical by other Islamic sects, in 2001.

Muslims have won Oscars in various categories over the years — including Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and feature director Asghar Farhadi — but none has taken a statuette for acting.

Ellen Burstyn, who won a best actress Oscar in 1975, has practiced a blend of Sufism and other religions since her late 30s but has said she considers herself a “spirit open to the truth” rather than a Muslim.

“Regardless of one’s theology or how you see life or relate to worshipping God, as an artist your job is the same… to try and tell the truth,” he said backstage on Sunday.

He added that he didn’t feel an actor’s religion was relevant to his work unless it “gives you more empathy to the people you have to advocate for.”


Ali recently told Britain’s Radio Times magazine that he discovered he was on an FBI watchlist after the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

“If you convert to Islam after a couple of decades of being a black man in the US, the discrimination you receive as a Muslim doesn’t feel like a shock,” he said.

I’ve been pulled over, asked where my gun is, asked if I’m a pimp, had my car pulled apart. Muslims will feel like there’s this new discrimination that they hadn’t received before — but it’s not new for us.

Before Moonlight, Ali is best known however for his Emmy-nominated portrayal of White House lobbyist turned chief of staff Remy Danton in Netflix political drama House of Cards.

© – AFP 2016

Read: Who won? Here are the 2017 Academy Awards winners >

Explainer: The double envelope mix up that led to that Best Picture mess at the Oscars >

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