On Sunday night, Mahershala Ali won his first Screen Actors Guild award for his role in Moonlight, and delivered perhaps the best and most poignant acceptance speech of the evening. Ali, who is Muslim, wove his own experience, the current political climate of the United States, and his film into a message about American empathy, or the lack thereof.
“I think what I have learned from working on Moonlight, you see what happens when you persecute people, and they fold into themselves,” he said. “What I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him he mattered, that he was okay. And accept him. I hope that we do a better job of that.”
Juan, Ali’s character in Moonlight, is a flawed mentor. He’s a drug dealer, but he takes in the main character, Chiron, and gives him a place to stay, a meal to eat, and an escape from Chiron’s abusive mother. Juan changes Chiron’s life, and shapes him into the man he becomes. Ali’s speech recalls the power of that character.
But it isn’t difficult to apply Ali’s words to the real-world events that unfolded in the two days before the SAG Awards, starting with President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration that bars entry to the US for refugees and specifically targets people from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order resulted in American authorities detaining refugees, people with visas, and green card holders as protests erupted around the country, declaring the act cruel and un-American.
“When we kind of get caught up in the minutiae, the details that make us different, there's two ways of seeing that,” Ali continued. “There's an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique. And then there's the opportunity to go to war about it — to say, ‘That person is different from me, and I don't like you, so let's battle.’”
Ali narrowed this broader concept to talk about how persecution and focusing on people’s differences doesn’t happen just on a national political stage but sometimes with the people in our own lives. Then he shared a personal anecdote about the struggle he and his mother had to overcome.
“My mother is an ordained minister,” Ali said. “I’m a Muslim. She didn't do backflips when I called her and told her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side, and I was able to see her. She is able to see me. We love each other.”