Mahershala Ali becomes first Ahmadi actor to win Oscar

Updated February 27, 2017

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Mahershala Ali of "Moonlight" poses with his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. —Reuters
Mahershala Ali of "Moonlight" poses with his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. —Reuters

Heavily-backed favourite Mahershala Ali won the best supporting actor Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of a drug dealer in coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” — becoming the first Ahmadi film star to pick up a golden statuette.

A first-time nominee, the 43-year-old actor saw off competition from Britain's Dev Patel, veteran US actors Jeff Bridges and Michael Shannon and newcomer Lucas Hedges.

“I want to thank my teachers, my professors,” Ali said. “One thing that they consistently told me... '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 thanked his fellow cast members — and his wife, who gave birth to their first child, a baby girl, just days earlier.

Barry Jenkins's “Moonlight” tells the life story of a young African-American struggling to find his place as he grows up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami.

In a brief but acclaimed performance, Ali's drug dealer Juan imparts life lessons to the protagonist Chiron that help him survive in prison and in the outside world.

The role won Oakland-born Ali best supporting actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, although he lost out to Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals”) at the Golden Globes.

Mahershala Ali poses for a selfie with a man during a skit. —Reuters
Mahershala Ali poses for a selfie with a man during a skit. —Reuters

Ali recently told Britain's Radio Times magazine that he discovered he was on an FBI watchlist after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“The discrimination you receive... doesn't feel like a shock,” he said. “I've been pulled over, asked where my gun is, asked if I'm a pimp, had my car pulled apart... It's not new for us.”

From 'House of Cards' to 'Luke Cage'

Ali's previous notable roles have come in Derek Cianfrance's “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Gary Ross's civil war era drama “Free State of Jones,” the final two “The Hunger Games” films and, on television, Netflix's “Marvel's Luke Cage.”

He is best known however for his Emmy-nominated portrayal of White House lobbyist turned chief of staff Remy Danton in Netflix political drama “House of Cards.”

Born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore — he was named after a child of the biblical prophet Isiah — and raised near San Francisco, Ali studied mass communications at St. Mary's College of California.

He made his professional debut performing with the California Shakespeare Festival and, soon after, earned a master's degree in acting from New York University.

His first major movie role was in David Fincher's 2008 fantasy drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” opposite Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

Ali and his wife Amatus Sami-Karim have a cat called Nas, named after the US rapper.