Mahershala Ali is nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars this weekend for his role in Moonlight. Here are three letters addressed to Mahershala.
I’m looking at a picture of you right now, Mahershala. Technically, it’s a screenshot of a scene from Moonlight, which I recently watched.
What an exceptional movie Moonlight was, and what a brilliant performance you gave as Juan. Your most moving moment — for me, at least — was when you were sitting at the table with Chiron and Teresa. Chiron asked you if he was “a faggot” and you did your best to handle the question, and you did a pretty good job answering it even though it wobbled you some. And then he asked you if you were a drug dealer and you did your best to handle the question, and you did a pretty good job you did even though the question clearly hurt you. And then he asked you if his mom was on drugs and you did your best to handle the question, and you did a pretty good job even though the question all the way broke you. Watching you move around in the heaviness of your own emotions while sitting in that chair, it was like watching someone trying to push an anvil up a sand dune, and I mean that as an absolute compliment.
That’s not the scene that the screenshot I’m looking at is from, though. The screenshot is from the scene where you’re at the beach and you’re telling Chiron the story of how a woman tried to give you the nickname “Blue.” You look so … I’m not sure the word. One word is “beautiful,” because you’re obviously beautiful, lol. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. “Contemplative” isn’t right. Neither is “reflective,” even though you were reflecting. “Pensive” isn’t right either. I guess maybe it’s “thoughtful” that I’m looking for here. Yes. That’s it. You looked so thoughtful. And tender. Maybe even more so than when you were holding Chiron in the water. Man, Chiron really shattered my heart. I’m going to think about him for a long time, I’m sure. I wonder how many people I know (or have known) are going through (or have gone through) what Chiron was working through. Some people are so fucking brave, man.
I’m looking at a picture of you right now, Mahershala. You’re smiling in it. It looks alive, your smile, if that makes sense. How could it, because smiles aren’t alive, even though yours definitely is. It’s a great smile, is what I’m saying.
A beautiful smile.
It feels warm.
It unfolds the way a well-written novel unfolds, and that’s to say it does so in layers, in stages, in ways you don’t expect, with characters being brought to life out of the ether. It’s astonishing. It’s big and broad, like midcareer Tom Cruise’s, or Matt Damon’s in movies where he’s the underdog good guy, or Matthew McConaughey’s in movies set in space where Matt Damon is a bad guy, or Julia Roberts’s anytime. But it’s also different. Or maybe it’s just new. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s perfect, that smile.
The best times are when it comes unexpectedly, which is remarkable when I remember that you’re an actor, and so almost every time I see you smile it’s not truly unexpected, at least not from your side, you know what I’m saying? You know you’re about to smile that way because you’ve read the script, so you know a smile is called for there, and yet still: It always feels like you had no idea it was coming. Being able to summon genuine surprise — it’s just — I just — when you really think about it — if there was a way — it’s a great smile, is what I’m saying.
I’m looking at a picture of you right now, Mahershala. (I am very glad that the internet has made looking at pictures of you so easy.) It’s a picture of you giving your acceptance speech at the SAG Awards after you had won for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for playing Juan in Moonlight.
I hope that you are enjoying your Moment. It’s been so great to watch it happen. I read about how you’ve been acting since, like, 2001 or something close to that. That’s incredible. I had no idea, which is weird given that a fair amount of my time these days seems to be spent thinking about you, and your work, and your smile, and your shoulders. What shoulders you have.
But so anyway, the thing about you having been acting for nearly two decades, that’s really neat. It wasn’t until House of Cards that I saw you in anything, and when I say “saw” I probably mean “noticed,” because I saw Predators before I’d watched any episodes of House of Cards but didn’t realize you were in it until after I watched it again after I watched House of Cards. Does that make sense? Were you surprised at how good Adrien Brody was in Predators? I was. He was really good, right? I honestly didn’t expect that from him. I saw that he’d been cast in the alpha male role and I was like, “Nah. No chance.” And then I watched it and I was like, “Whoa.”
But so anyway, after House of Cards anytime I saw you anywhere, or in something, I’d say something like, “Ayyyyyyyye. It’s Remy.” You were so good in that role. You and Jackie, you and Frank, you and Claire, you and Raymond Tusk — any scene you were in was always great. Where do you get your suits made? They don’t seem like normal suits. They seem like special suits. You put a suit on and you look like you. I put a suit on and I look I don’t even know — probably something ridiculous; definitely something that’s not you. I’ll bet it has something to do with the shoulders. What shoulders you have.
But so anyway, I would see you in a thing and I’d say something like, “Ayyyyyyyye. It’s Remy.” When you were in Luke Cage? Remy as a bad guy. When you were in Hidden Figures? Remy in the 1960s. When you were in Free State of Jones? Remy in a very unlikable metal collar. Not now, though. Because you’re having your moment. You’re Mahershala now. You’ll be Mahershala forever now. The one with the smile. With the shoulders. With the stare that can be tender and terrifying and perfect all at once.
Good luck on Sunday. I hope you win an Oscar.