There are no such thing as small parts, only small actors. Whether or not there’s absolute veracity to that statement, no one lends credence to the notion more than Mahershala Ali. I first noticed Mahershala Ali in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. The role, Kofi Kancam, was small. And as the new boyfriend to Eva Mendes’ Romina Gutierrez, his presence placed him in direct contention with Ryan Gosling’s Luke Glanton, the character we’re supposed to root for in a measured sort of way. Kofi could have easily been a throwaway character, an interloper to the damaged romance between Romina and Luke. Yet Mahershala refused to play the role as throwaway, declined to portray Kofi as the “new boyfriend” character we’ve seen on screen so many times before. Mahershala Ali demanded empathy within those brief minutes, and that demand and refusal to play characters as we’ve seen them before, brought him to this year, a year we’ve deemed The Year of Mahershala Ali.
The year of Ali began in March with the release of House of Cards, season 4. Coming from a small role in one of the world’s biggest franchises (Mockingjay parts 1 and 2), Ali settled right back into the groove of his character, lobbyist Remy Danton. Danton has always been an integral, if somewhat muted character, compared to the other players with their monologues and bold, and often corrupt, buys for power. Perhaps it was coming off of a blockbuster, next to some of the biggest movie stars, but Ali took up more space this season, his screen presence more unmistakable than ever. In part, this was because season 4 of House of Cards gave Danton a bigger role, and put his social life in conflict with President Frank Underwood. But even with more screen-time, Ali displayed growth as an actor, and a commitment to letting viewers see a little more of an extremely private character. This, largely, wasn’t done through words, but through body language and longing, meaningful looks that revealed a deep inner sadness to an outwardly confident character. Danton, easily, could have been the show’s “stoic negro.” The unthreatening, neutered figure that vies for neither noteworthy power nor sex. Instead, in Ali’s hands, Danton becomes a man of sexual prowess, a romantic nonetheless, and the character who could very well lead to President Underwood’s downfall. Yes, Danton works because House of Cards has excellent writers, but that writing is also backed up by a performance from Ali that displays an awareness and desire to be more than a black man in a nice suit.
While this summer’s Free State of Jones didn’t fare quite so well with critics or the box-office, Ali managed to stand out as Moses Washington and held his own against Matthew McConaughey’s all-consuming accent. It was fall where Ali made his biggest impression, first in Marvel’s Luke Cage, and later in Barry Jenkins’ esteemed Moonlight. In both of these projects, Ali took the black criminal, the “thug” in the hands of lesser writers, and made them so much more. As Cornell Cottonmouth Stokes in Luke Cage, Ali played the charming devil, the charismatic power-figure who didn’t gather a crowd just with a fancy way of words and promises but because he was actually interesting. Cottonmouth’s love of music offered the character something that so few gangster characters have, a passion outside of crime, and a glimpse at the life they could have had—not simply a happy life but successful one that comes as a result of true talent. Cottonmouth is a tragic look at the fetishization of material things among inner-city blacks, the other-side of the folk-hero coin that holds Luke Cage. Ali brought such a smirking level of cool, backed by the character’s fear of failure, that he undoubtedly emerged as one of the show’s strongest aspects.
If Luke Cage made Mahershala Ali a name to remember, Moonlight shot him into the stratosphere and will hopefully be a game changer for his career. As Chiron’s father-figure, and a drug-deal, Juan, Ali painted another portrait of a complicated criminal. He’s the first character we’re introduced to in Moonlight and sets an introspective, occasionally mournful, and ultimately hopeful tone for the film. In that first scene we get the sense that Juan is tired of this life of dealing. He goes through the motions, the threats, the “front,” but unlike Cottonmouth, this is a character whose heart isn’t really in the game. His mentorship Chiron provides a path for possible redemption. And while we expect Juan to play out the role of Fagan, the character challenges our expectations in the fact that he actually does become a positive influence in Chrion’s life. One of the most unexpected scenes in the film is when Chiron has a conversation with Juan about homosexuality. Juan doesn’t respond in the way we think that type of character of character would, based on cinematic evidence and the black communities’ still challenged views on homosexuality. Instead he responds with thoughtfulness, and kindness, and a male acceptance that Chiron doesn’t encounter again until the final act. The reason why Ali has been surrounded by so much awards talk for his portrayal as Juan isn’t just because he challenges our expectations while delivering an authenticity but because he comes in with such a presence that we feel the gaping hole Chiron feels when he’s gone. So much of Ali’s career so far, can be defined on those terms, brief encounters with characters built on fascinating presence, who leave holes when they’re gone.
Mahershala Ali will finish out the year as a supporting player in Hidden Figures, and he has already been signed for a role in Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel. There’s no doubt that as a supporting player, he’s any project’s secret weapon. But an actor like Ali, one who invites us in to look not just at a character’s outward persona but their secret soul, is an actor ready-made for a leading role. Mahershala Ali has managed to become our Star of the Year, and in all likelihood, an Oscar winner, solely on supporting roles. There’s no telling what demands he’ll make of viewers, what insights he’ll bring to scripts, and what layers of empathy he’ll provide when the rest of Hollywood recognizes that Mahershala Ali doesn’t just take roles, he defines them.
Featured Image: Netflix