Mahershala Ali won his Oscar from his first Oscar nomination for portraying Juan in Moonlight.
Mahershala Ali is one of those actors who in the past offered consistently good work in very minor roles, where when watching him one can't help but ponder why he wasn't given a bit more to do. That was especially true recently in the bizarre way he was utilized in the series Luke Cage. In Moonlight though it seems Ali is given his due through the character Juan. The film actually opens with his character as we briefly see him in a short exchange that alludes to Juan's background. The focus quickly shifts towards his central purpose as he discovers the young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) hiding from bullies in an apartment building. Although Juan's method of discovery is to actually tear down a window, one can quickly see that Juan only has the best intentions for the boy. This is made all the more evident through Ali's performance that exudes such a warmth from his presence, through that slight smile and a curious set of eyes as Juan attempts to decipher Chiron's problem. Ali is only genuine in his realization of Juan's charity as he attempts to help the boy by feeding him and giving him a place to stay for a night. Ali brings this ease in the behavior suggesting a natural goodness within the man.
The highlights of the film for me come in the scenes where Juan continues to attempt to help Chrion, and allow him to break out of his shell a bit. Ali's approach to these scenes is very effective in the way he keeps a distance yet at the same time feels welcoming. Ali is careful not to overplay or overemphasize the charity in Juan. He instead shows his charity that is fitting for a man of his rough background, although that is in no way to say his charity worth any less. Ali's restraint is important in that he never makes Juan an unbelievable saint yet makes his good works wholly convincing. Ali keeps a more casual quality in Juan as he portrays him not ever trying to force something out of Chiron instead Ali shows Juan attempting calmly to inspire the change in the boy. There is one truly special sequence where Juan takes Chiron to a beach. He tries to teach the boy how to swim which is particularly authentic moment since Ali was in reality teaching Alex Hibbert how to swim. He also offers a bit of advice on making choices for one's own self. The history of a life feels expressed in Ali's delivery and he earns the wisdom in Juan.
Unfortunately Juan is not just a nice man in the neighborhood, but is also the neighborhood drug dealer. Working as such he discovers that Chiron's mother (Naomi Harris) is one of his customers. Ali is excellent in the scene in bringing out his intense anger as he questions her behavior, and her inability to provide for her son. She counters though that Juan is the one selling the drugs, and Ali is very moving in showing the sad realization in Juan's silence as he is unable to really excuse his own behavior. This leads to a final visit to his home by Chiron where Ali conveys a certain change in Juan. Ali in no way loses the warmth that helps to define his relationship with the boy, but throughout the scene he conveys the underlying shame in Juan as he recognizes that he is in some way responsibility for the boy's hardships. Ali is altogether heartbreaking when Chiron directly asks him if he is a drug dealer, as he so somberly admits to it. Ali is especially affecting in the way he suggests how deeply this pains him, as he reveals the quiet devastation in the man. That is Ali's final scene in the film, which seems unfortunate as it does not feel like we even get to say goodbye, and I will admit I do find the first third of the film to be the strongest part. That is to say nothing against Ali's magnetic work, he is a supporting player after all, and it is the testament to the power of his performance. His charismatic portrayal stays with you long after, his exit and leaves a lasting impression on the film.