Mahershala Ali becomes first Muslim to win acting Oscar, Trump and Streep centre stage

Mahershala Ali, 43, played the mentor to a young black boy in Moonlight. PHOTO: REUTERS
Actress Meryl Streep at the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on Sunday (Feb 26) in Hollywood, California. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (Reuters/AFP) - Mahershala Ali won his first Oscar on Sunday for his supporting role in Moonlight, kicking off what could be a big night for diversity at the Academy Awards.

Ali, 43, who played the mentor to a young black boy in Moonlight, was one of a record seven actors of colour nominated for Oscars this year, along with films that ranged from overlooked African-American female math geniuses (Hidden Figures) to interracial marriage (Loving) and black incarceration rates in modern United States society (13th).

A first-time nominee, Ali became the first Muslim film star to pick up a golden statuette for acting, reported AFP. He 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.

Muslims have won Oscars in various categories over the years - including Pakistani documentary film-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and feature director Asghar Farhadi - but none has taken a statuette for acting.

US President Donald Trump and actress Meryl Streep also took centre stage on the movie industry's biggest night as host Jimmy Kimmel fired off political zingers after an awards season marked by celebrity opposition to Mr Trump.

"I want to say thank you to President Trump. Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?" quipped Kimmel in an apparent reference to Mr Trump's crackdown on immigrants and travellers from seven majority Muslim nations.

Streep, 67, was given a standing ovation by the Oscar audience when Kimmel recalled how Mr Trump had derided the actress as "overrated" after she attacked him at the Golden Globes ceremony in January.

"Meryl Streep has phoned it in for more than 50 films in the course of her lacklustre career," Kimmel quipped as triple Oscar-winner Streep squirmed in her seat.

Justin Timberlake strutted into Hollywood's Dolby Theatre to open the gala, singing his hit Can't Stop The Feeling! and Lovely Day by Bill Withers as he danced past the stars and onto the podium.

Several celebrities wore blue ribbons on Sunday in support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) rights advocacy group that worked to get Mr Trump's travel ban blocked in US courts.

With a leading 14 nominations, romantic musical La La Land looks set to dance away with an armful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, for its love letter to artistic ambition and Los Angeles itself.

If it turns out to be a big night for La La Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a jazz pianist and a struggling actress, it would be the first musical to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards since Chicago in 2003.

"It's been such a surprise. We had no idea it would get this kind of reception," Gosling told reporters on the red carpet on Sunday. "It seems to be speaking to people in a deeper way and that's a nice feeling."

Elsewhere, Iranian Oscar-nominated director Asghar Farhadi boycotted Sunday's ceremony because of Mr Trump's travel ban.

The directors of all five Oscar-nominated foreign language films on Friday denounced what they called a "climate of fanaticism and nationalism" in the United States and elsewhere.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.