Last night, Moonlight/House of Cards/Luke Cage/Hidden Figures actor Mahershala Ali accepted a SAG Award for his role in the first of the films on that long list, in which he played a surrogate father figure — a drug dealer who attempts to instill hope in a kid he immediately identifies as an outcast within his community — for the film’s body-transcending main character, Chiron. (Chiron, himself, is played with miraculous continuity by three actors — Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes — across his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.)
But Ali’s acceptance speech was about more than Moonlight — which was, itself, already about a lot. In a similar way to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Taraji P. Henson, and Stranger Things’ David Harbor, Ali responded to America’s politically dire and inhumane times with a speech that did not, as usual, perfunctorily thank a list of people. Ali drew on the themes of Moonlight to stress the current gaping void in empathy that exists both in American politics and everyday American life. This, of course, is in reference to the repulsive Trump/Bannon executive order issued on Friday, which effectively calls for the religious persecution of Muslims through detainment and rejection of anyone from seven nations in which Trump doesn’t have business ties, as well as for the closure of our borders to refugees.
“I think what I’ve learned from working on Moonlight is we see what happens when we persecute people. They fold into themselves,” he began. “And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan, 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 — to tell him that he mattered, that he was okay — and to accept him. And I hope we do a better job of that.”
Ali spoke of his own experience converting to Islam, and of his ordained minister mother’s acceptance of his decision. “She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her…17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side, and I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, we love each other, the love has grown, and that stuff is minutiae, it’s not that important.”
Unlike the Oscars, SAG speeches aren’t rushed by the invasion of an orchestra meant to stifle anyone who runs overtime. So Ali actually also had an opportunity to say the usual thanks — to director/writer Barry Jenkins, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and the trio of Chirons.
Sometimes the intersection of politics and entertainment can be naive, and sometimes it can plaster over the nuances of both. But last night, turning a self-congratulatory ceremony that is by its nature discordant with political/humanitarian turmoil into a platform for discussion — particularly when it’s smart, inclusive discussion — felt like a powerful gesture from the people who chose to do so. Now, if only some Trump supporters would watch this speech, and then, better yet, read the stories of people who’ve already been impacted by Trump’s ban. And if only that’d make any difference for them. One has to hope something will.