When Mahershala Ali won the Academy Award for best supporting actor this evening, it was reportedly the first time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had awarded an Oscar to a Muslim actor.
Ali, who converted to Islam 17 years ago, was recognized for his portrayal of Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to lead character Chiron in Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age story Moonlight, which was also nominated for best picture. He also had a supporting role in another best-picture nominated movie, Hidden Figures.
Ali’s milestone comes weeks after US president Donald Trump attempted to block US entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations. The executive order has been blocked by a federal judge.
In January, Ali spoke about his conversion to Islam at the Screen Actors Guild awards in a powerful speech that encouraged people to put aside their differences—particularly when it comes to faith—and uplift each other, just as his character Juan does for Chiron in Moonlight.
“My mother is an ordained minister,” Ali said as he accepted his SAG best supporting actor award. “I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side. I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, we love each other, the love has grown. That stuff is minutiae. It’s not that important.”
This year’s slate of Oscar nominees, and its most nominated movies, were markedly more diverse than in past years. Another nominee for best supporting actor, Dev Patel, would reportedly have been the first Indian actor to win an Oscar had he won.
During his Oscars acceptance speech, Ali thanked his teachers and mentors, who taught him, he said, that “It’s not about you, it’s about these characters. You are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters.”
He also acknowledged his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, who gave birth to their daughter four days ago.