After accepting the award from last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander, the brand-new father began his acceptance speech by buttoning his jacket, joking, “My grandma would want me to button up.”
At the end of his speech, Ali thanked his wife Amatus Sami-Karim, who just gave birth to their first child, noting that she was “in her third trimester during award season, and we just had a daughter four days ago. I just want to thank her for being such a soldier through this process and really carrying me through it all.”
Ali, 43, thanked Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and his agent, as well as “the rest of the cast who did wonderful work.” He added that “anyone of them could be up here right now holding this trophy” and that “it was such a gift getting to work with you, and be inspired by you and the performances that you all offered up.”
The actor also thanked “so many wonderful teachers” and professors who helped along the way. “One thing that they consistently told me,” he continued, is that acting is “not about you.” He explained his professors told him that acting is “about these characters you are serving. You are service to these stories and these characters and I’m so blessed to have had an opportunity.”
Moonlight, a lyrical meditation on racial, masculine and sexual identity, tells the story of a young, gay black man (played across the film’s three chapters by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) coming of age in Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. Ali, 43, portrays Juan, a local dealer who becomes an unlikely father figure to the boy in the first section.
Barry Jenkins directed the film and wrote the screenplay, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
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The presumptive favorite going into the night, Ali beat out Dev Patel in Lion, Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water, Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. The Oscar is his first nomination and win.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in the fall, Ali said he was drawn to Moonlight for its nuanced, authentic portrayal of a world rarely glimpsed on the big screen. “Simply put, it was the best thing I’ve ever read,” he said. “These are all people we grew up with but never had their space on camera. … I remember just being so moved by how specifically these characters were all drawn, how unique the story was, and feeling like I knew these people.”
The 89th Annual Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, are airing live from Los Angeles on ABC.