Mahershala Ali Only Needed 20 Minutes to Win an Oscar for ‘Moonlight’

Some actors need a whole movie to prove themselves Oscar worthy, but Ali did it in a fraction of the time with his deeply moving performance in Barry Jenkins’ modern classic.

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the Academy Award-winning performance by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight.

The Academy Awards doesn’t have a lot of requirements to determine whether a performance qualifies for one of their acting categories. I long believed that it depended on how many minutes they appear on screen. Like, if an actor is only in a movie for five minutes, they aren’t eligible. But that’s not the case. The Academy’s official rules make no such restrictive distinction: “a performance by an actor or actress in any role shall be eligible for nomination either for the leading role or supporting role categories.”

Take for instance Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Despite being discussed and referred to throughout the movie, his character, Hannibal Lecter, is only on screen for about 16 minutes of its almost two-hour runtime. But that’s all Hopkins needed to become a timeless horror icon, and win his first Best Actor Oscar at the 1991 Academy Awards. 

Hopkins isn’t the only actor with super limited screen time who still managed to land one of Hollywood’s top honors. For his Oscar-winning performance in Little Miss Sunshine, Alan Arkin is on screen for about 14 minutes, while Judi Dench won the award for Shakespeare in Love with only eight minutes of screen time. Beatrice Straight has them both beat with her five-minute Academy Award-winning performance in Sidney Lumet’s Network

The most recent actor to join the ranks is Mahershala Ali. For only 20 minutes of screen time in the opening act of Moonlight, he was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, underlining the truth of an old Konstantin Stanislavski adage: there really are no small parts

Moonlight is divided into three sections, from different points in the life of the central character, Chiron (played by three different actors), whom the film follows from adolescence into adulthood. Writer-director Barry Jenkins intentionally utilizes stereotypes, including drug dealers and broken families, as a way to deconstruct the prejudices we’ve historically projected onto people of color. He leans on his immensely talented cast to surface the nuances of the Black experience in a way rarely explored in film.

With his character Juan, Ali created a vivid portrait of the complexities of Black male identity, forcing the audience to confront their own preconceived notions of who his character is underneath the regressive archetypes Jenkins is purposely playing with.

We’re introduced to Juan as he checks up on one of his trusted employees, Terrence, on the block where they sell drugs. As they talk, he notices Chiron duck into a dilapidated apartment to hide out from a group of bullies. As Chiron refuses to open the door for him, Juan pries off the boarded up windows and steps into the trashed room.

At this point in the film, we can’t immediately discern what Juan’s intentions are for following Chiron, but as he approaches the scared kid with fatherly concern, coaxing — but not forcing — him to open up, any initial assumptions begin to wash away.

In this paternal connection Juan makes with Chiron, and the subsequent scenes where we witness their bond grow even stronger, Ali is showing us the human underneath the cinematic stereotypes Moonlight is actively deconstructing. Just because Juan is a drug dealer doesn’t make him an immoral person, even if his transgressive actions have consequences that directly impact Chiron’s life.

We see him reckon with those consequences later in the first act. As Juan talks with Terrence on their street corner, they notice a car parked down the block. Incensed that someone is using drugs so near to where they’re selling, Juan approaches the car, only to be shocked to find Chiron’s mother, Paula. He pulls her from the car and excoriates her over leaving Chiron at home to get high.

Defiant, Paula asks Juan, “So, you’re going to raise my son now?” He explodes, yelling to her, “Are you going to raise him?” Only for Paula to turn the tables and scream in reply, “Are you going to keep selling me rocks?”

Her words paralyze Juan, cutting into him like a knife as a crestfallen expression falls over Ali’s face. We see in his muted anguish the realization that she’s right; he’s just as much to blame for Chiron’s broken home as she is. But Ali plays Juan as being too disgusted with his role in upturning Chiron’s life to reply. Paula’s words are like a sucker punch, knocking the wind out of Juan as he struggles to find his breath. As a pained expression grows in Ali’s eyes, we see Juan’s silent acknowledgement of the horror his actions have inadvertently wrought.

Juan’s final scene is arguably Moonlight’s most tragic, but it also showcases how keyed in Ali was to surfacing the nuances of his character. The night after Juan finds Paula on his corner, Chiron visits the man’s home and quietly brings up questions he’d been too afraid to ask before, like if his mother uses drugs. Juan struggles to find the right words, not wanting to tell him the truth, even though he knows he must. But as Chiron asks Juan if he sells drugs, Ali’s entire energy shifts.

Through his subtle physicality, we see Juan completely shutdown, confirming Chiron’s question with a softly whispered, “Yeah.” It’s the same anguish we felt from Juan when he confronted Paula over her drug use. He knows the role he’s played in destroying their lives, and the fact that he must now admit it to this innocent child breaks him. As Chiron pushes his chair from the table and silently exits the frame, the camera lingers on Ali’s profile as we see tremors course through his body, cutting away just before the tears break from Juan’s eyes.

As great as Mahershala Ali is in the opening act of Moonlight, he’s arguably made even better by Alex R. Hibbert, who plays young Chiron. There’s an old theater joke that you should never work with kids, but I believe they can make for the best scene partners. Children are naturally receptive, and as Juan speaks with Chiron, whether it’s on a beachfront or around the dinner table, Hibbert simply listens to what Ali is giving him, and responds earnestly in return.

The inherent naturalism of a great child actor like Hibbert frees up a veteran performer like Ali to not over-intellectualize his actorly choices. He’s just having a conversation, and that simplicity is part of why his performance in Moonlight feels practically flawless. Because nothing he does in his 20 minutes on screen feels anything less than utterly genuine.

Before writing this article, Moonlight had been a blind spot for me. I never doubted the substance of the film — it’s a legit work of art — but I’m not a moviegoer who immediately seeks out melancholy cinema. Heart-ripping movies? Absolutely love it. Heart-breaking? Not quite as much.

So as I prepared for my first watch, rather than Googling “how many feelings will Moonlight make me feel?” I went to Letterboxd to find out what some friendly voices had to say. While I should have taken FSR Senior Editor Rob Hunter’s four-star, single word review “Jesus” and called it a day, I kept scrolling and came across a little capsule review from a user that said, “Moonlight invented acting.”

That is a humorously hyperbolic statement to creatively convey how impactful the performances are, but as I’ve ruminated over the film, I come to better understand the underlying point the user is comically making. Every actor in Moonlight (including Naomie Harris, who was also Oscar-nominated in the role of Paula) delivers a poignant performance that is so truthful and realistic that it practically redefines what great acting is in the 21st century. 

Mahershala Ali’s performance as Juan proved once again that you don’t need a ton of screen time to make a profound impact on audiences. All you need is a deep appreciation for surfacing the nuances that exist within the human condition, and the dedication to honestly conveying those emotions on screen. And I don’t know of a recent Oscar-winning actor more honest in his emotions than Ali is in Moonlight.

Jacob Trussell: Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)