Mahershala Ali as Juan, Alex R. Hibbert as Little and Janelle Monáe as Teresa in the film "Moonlight." (David Bornfriend / A24)
The most potent acting pair to grace the films nominated for this year’s best picture Oscar aren’t Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, singing and dancing their way across “La La Land,” or even Denzel Washington and Viola Davis powering through August Wilson’s stage-to-screen prose in “Fences.”
That honor goes to Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe, two breakthrough stars who helped drive not one but two best-picture contenders in the same year: Barry Jenkins’ gay coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” and Theodore Melfi’s inspirational tale “Hidden Figures,” about three black women fighting for equality at NASA in the 1960s.
Ali’s exceptionally fruitful year saw his 16-year career skyrocket in 2016 with an Emmy nomination for his fourth season as “House of Cards’” Washington insider Remy Denton, an acclaimed run on Netflix’s “Luke Cage” and a role in “Hidden Figures” as a charming Army officer who with Monáe’s encouragement romances Taraji P. Henson — after first making the mistake of underestimating her.
But it was his riveting turn as an empathetic drug dealer who takes a fatherless young boy under his wing in “Moonlight” that earned Ali his first Oscar nomination (along with co-star Naomie Harris, who is up for supporting actress) and sent the actor on a whirlwind awards tour collecting one trophy after another, including the Screen Actors Guild award for supporting actor.
“It’s a wonderful thing to experience, compared to years past,” said Ali, acknowledging the progress reflected in a historically diverse Academy Awards field just a year after #OscarsSoWhite. “I hope it inspires not only creatives but the studios to really invest in a range of ideas and narratives that feature people of color — in leading roles, or in parts that are critical to the arc of the stories.”
WATCH: Supporting actor Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali talks about his surprise and delight in recognizing traits of people he’s known in the script for "Moonlight."
A week and a half before the Academy Awards, Ali, 43, was happily taking a break from the madness of his first awards season. He’d flown home from shooting a film in Austin, Texas, in time to join his wife, the artist, actor and musician Amatus Sami-Karim, on baby watch. The couple were anticipating the arrival of their first child.
“It is its own award season,” laughed Ali, “equally demanding of your presence.”
The break, however, gave Ali what most Oscar nominees rarely get ahead of their first Big Day: A moment to take it all in.
I’m an artist, and I want the space to be able to do my work and keep certain things private. But I felt a responsibility to shed light.
Mahershala Ali with Alex R. Hibbert in "Moonlight." (A24)
“It’s carved out space for me to stop and tend to some other parts of my life,” said Ali from the couple’s home in Venice. “Suddenly I feel like I’ve found a little bit of my equilibrium again. As appreciative as I am of the experience and how generous awards season has been toward me personally, and toward ‘Moonlight’ … you don’t want an experience like this to pass you by without a few moments to take inventory and chart your growth.”
Ali was already enjoying a solid working actor’s career when producer Adele Romanski recommended him to her old friend Jenkins for “Moonlight.” Romanski had worked with Ali on the Bay Area-set independent drama “Kicks.”
Jenkins, making his sophomore feature (after 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy”), cast Ali as Juan, a dealer in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, who sees in a young boy named Chiron a desperate need for guidance and protection.
It’s a quietly powerful performance that makes Ali’s presence felt throughout “Moonlight” long after his character departs the story.
“Juan felt like heart and good intentions to me,” said Ali, who credits years of working in supporting roles with teaching him to make the most of even limited screen time. “He felt like love. Even though it’s not spelled out on the pages, you can feel it and sense it in some of his actions. Upon reading it I got really excited because I felt I had something to offer this part — I know I’ve learned how to be present without necessarily having a lot to say.”
I hope it inspires not only creatives but the studios to really invest in a range of ideas and narratives that feature people of color — in leading roles.
Monáe, 31, had a similar instinctive pull toward “Moonlight” the moment she read the script by Jenkins, who is up for two of the film’s eight Oscar nominations (adapted screenplay and director).
“I remember I was on a Delta flight, flying from Las Vegas back to Atlanta, Georgia, in seat 3D, just sobbing underneath my blanket,” Monáe told The Times. “I felt very thankful that Barry Jenkins and [playwright] Tarell Alvin McCraney were giving so much of their life story to the world. I was thankful that finally, we were going to have an onscreen portrayal of what it means to be young, black, gay, male and poor in America.”
The Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter, music producer and actress hadn’t acted onscreen prior to “Moonlight,” but makes an indelible mark as Teresa, who with Ali as her partner, Juan, provides a nurturing safe haven for Chiron and his questions of sexual identity.
“Teresa is very similar to who I am as a human being to those who are often marginalized, from the LGBTQ community to women, to the excommunicated, to immigrants, to those who don’t feel a part of the American story,” Monáe said. “I’ve always tried to lend a voice through my music, and I thought it was also important to do that in film.”
On the “Moonlight” set for one of their most difficult scenes together, there was little rehearsing. In it, young Chiron, nicknamed “Little” (played by then 10-year-old Alex R. Hibbert), asks his surrogate parents difficult questions about why other kids bully him, and holds up a mirror to Juan that forces the man to acknowledge the repercussions of his own actions.
“I responded the way I would want someone to respond to my future son or my nephew,” remembered Mone. “One of the things that Barry Jenkins said to me was, ‘As long as you’re leading with your heart, there’s no wrong way — every step you choose is the right way.’ Mahershala and I both led with our hearts.”
“It’s Little’s greatest moment of disappointment,” Ali said, “but it’s also the scene that will potentially set him free later in his life. When there’s another opportunity as an adult for Chiron to be at peace with himself, a lot of that starts with the early conversations that Juan and Teresa have with him. So that scene is important in many ways. There is a small offering of comfort, a seed of understanding in that moment.”
Janelle Monae, from left, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in "Hidden Figures."
A few months after filming “Moonlight” on location in Miami, Ali and Monáe got Allison Schroeder and Melfi’s script for “Hidden Figures.”
“I thought, finally, we have a story that won’t just be highlighting our beauty as black women but our brilliance. I was in tears reading about the amount of obstacles these women had to go through as they were trying to send our first Americans into space. I was truly proud of how they maneuvered through that matrix in the 1960s and late ’50s. They were able to achieve the extraordinary during a time when African Americans and African American women did not have the agency that I have now.”
She won the role of Mary Jackson, a gifted scientist who must navigate racist segregation laws to become NASA’s first black female engineer, by auditioning with a memorable scene in which Mary shrewdly wins over a white judge in order to gain access to the classes she’s required to take for advancement.
Alongside costars Octavia Spencer, who has earned an Oscar nomination for her role as NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, and Henson, who plays mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, Monáe struck a sisterly bond that helped carry her through emotional times on set confronting the gravity of the racism and sexism their characters faced — as well as issues of inequity in Hollywood.
I thought, finally, we have a story that won’t just be highlighting our beauty as black women but our brilliance.
“Taraji would cook for us, we’d hang together, cry together and we spoke about many of the things we want to see changed in this industry,” said Monáe, who recently launched Fem the Future, an organization dedicated to creating more opportunities for women in film, television, music, media and tech. “We see what’s going on, and we’re looking for solutions. That was a great thing about ‘Hidden Figures’ — there was a sisterhood there.”
And while their stories are different, Monáe sees common ground linking the two first major film roles of her career, “two queens” from disparate worlds: “These are the voices that are oftentimes erased, oftentimes defanged, oftentimes left out of the history books. I didn’t want them to not shine anymore, and I didn’t want them to be hidden anymore.”
Ali is thankful for his meatier film roles, even if it’s meant he won’t be joining the fifth season of “House of Cards,” a show he speaks of with humble appreciation.
“Dealing with your instincts and intuition means constantly gauging the risks versus rewards, and I think it paid off,” he said. “I had to leave [‘House of Cards’] in order to have the shot at looking at other opportunities. So many of us want to work, but I want to go beyond surviving.”
The opportunities Monáe, Ali and all of Hollywood have had this season to combat the political policies and rhetoric of the current administration by amplifying marginalized voices have not been lost on either star. But the most personal and powerful moment any of Tinseltown’s finest had onstage this year might have been when Ali took the podium to accept his SAG award for supporting actor.
Delivering an emotional message of unity and acceptance just days after President Trump ordered a travel ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Ali declared to the world, “I am a Muslim.”
“It was a very hard decision to make,” said Ali. “There’s nothing more personal than our ideology, and in some cases our theology. I’m an artist, and I want the space to be able to do my work and keep certain things private. But I felt a responsibility to shed light on how personal this position is for me, and perhaps draw a tie for everyone by personalizing the struggle within my own family of having a different point of view.
“I normally wouldn’t do that,” he added. “I’m not one to reveal a bunch of things about my personal life. I really just want to do this work. But I felt that was appropriate because I thought there was something there that I could offer people in what is a really challenging time, for Muslims and for everyone. And I took that opportunity very seriously. I was nervous about it but it felt necessary.”
“We all were teary-eyed and extremely proud of him,” said Monáe. “Very proud that he used his award speech to figure out a way for us to understand that we’re all in it together, that we need each other, and that we have choices.”
More about “Moonlight” . . .
WATCH: Kenneth Turan’s review of "Moonlight." WATCH: Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney discusses Moonlight’s screen adaptation WATCH: Octavia Spencer on researching her "Hidden Figures" character, Dorothy Vaughan.
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