Collecting his Screen Actors’ Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor on Sunday night, Mahershala Ali showed himself to be the composed, grounded, thoughtful and humble man you imagined him to be in his acceptance speech, highlighting the senselessness of the situation in America right now with a simple anecdote about the time he told his mum he had converted to Islam.
His breakthrough has been on the horizon for a while now as he’s been a consistently intriguing and magnetic presence in television and film. Though I definitely must have witnessed him in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), it was with House of Cards (2013-present) – which he credits with “opening things up” for him – that I became enrapt.
“Lobbyist for natural gas company” doesn’t exactly scream “memorable character”, but Remy Danton quickly became one of the show’s best, a man of capricious allegiances with an obscured moral compass. The character Ali built here was somewhat inscrutable and what led to him becoming a tantalising casting. Ali has at once a coolness and a warmth to him; a reserved, withdrawn nature that you’re never quite sure is down to aloofness or badly healed prior wounds. Danton seemed distracted, elsewhere, as though he wasn’t living the life he intended (I unfortunately use the past tense as Ali has confirmed he won’t be back for the show’s fifth season because he’s so damn busy with all these new jobs).
This sense of underlying regret ran through into his award-winning Moonlight turn, in which he plays an oddly endearing drug dealer who is aware that he is essentially selling despair but also has a kindness to him and is besotted with protagonist Chiron in the most endearing, paternal way. Ali is only in the movie for a scant few minutes, but it’s enough for his character to hang heavy over Chiron’s life and the movie itself.
Conscious that he was carving out a niche with these withdrawn characters (he is also great in Hidden Figures), Ali wanted to try something a little different.
It’s “important that the characters are very different so it gives people a sense of my range,” he told The Independent recently, and it initially came as a surprise that in Netflix’s Luke Cage he was cast as the villain. It wound up making total sense, though, and Ali became the best thing about the show, his inherent calmness and quietude being employed to make a character not beguiling this time but chilling. He had depth and conflict too, with a Marvel boss even describing Ali’s antagonist Cottonmouth as “the other hero of the story”.
From here, after a likely Oscar win in a few weeks, Ali has some interesting roles lined up: Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic about rapper Roxanne Shante, and Alita: Battle Angel, a manga adaptation from Sin City director Robert Rodriguez. These are supporting roles again though – here's hoping he’ll soon find the lead role he deserves.
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