Mahershala Ali set the tone for the evening as he walked onstage to accept the first award of the night. Ali, who won for best supporting actor in Moonlight, made history as he became the first Muslim actor to ever win an Academy Award.
“I want to thank my teachers, my professors,” Ali said. “One thing they consistently told me … was that it wasn’t about you. It’s not about you, it’s about these characters, you are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters.”
Ali went on to thank Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and the film’s cast and crew, but most importantly, he wanted to thank his wife and newborn daughter.
“I want to thank her for being such a soldier through this process and carrying me through it all,” he said.
Another winner of the evening was Ezra Edelman for O.J.: Made in America, and there was some heavy competition in the best documentary feature category that included Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the film Life, Animated by Roger Ross Williams and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea.
In his speech, Edelman remembered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but he also got political.
“It is also for others, the victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence and criminal injustice,” he said. “This is their story as well as Ron and Nicole’s.”
Viola Davis probably gave the best speech of the night as she accepted her award for best supporting actress for her role in Fences. Even before her name was announced, Oprah Winfrey put that good juju out there on Twitter.
Davis became the first black woman to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony for acting. (Whoopi Goldberg is an EGOT, so also has a Tony, but it is for producing. Goldberg also has a Grammy.) Davis’ speech reflected the historic win.
“You know, there is one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered and that’s the graveyard,” a teary-eyed Davis began. “People ask me all the time—‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories—the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.
“I became an artist, and thank God I did,” she continued, “because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
In her speech, she also thanked Denzel Washington.
“Oh captain, my captain,” she told Washington, “thank you for putting two entities in the driving seat: [playwright] August [Wilson] and God. And they served you well.”
She thanked her family as well. “The people who taught me good or bad, how to fail, how to love, how to hold an award, how to lose: my parents,” she said. “I’m so thankful that God chose you to bring me into this world.”
Davis deserved the Oscar not only for her role in Fences but also for that acceptance speech, said the ceremony’s host, Jimmy Kimmel.
Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney took home the award for best adapted screenplay, and their acceptance speech was a call for marginalized voices to be heard.
Thank you to the academy. Thank you, A24. Thank you, Plan B. Thank you to our amazing cast. Thank you, my mom, my sister, everybody in Miami. I want to thank my reps, three amigos, Jay Baker at CAA, Joel Ross and Jamie Feldman. And two women in particular. My publicist, Paula Woods and Paula Seacrest. Thank you for taking care of me. I told my students, be in love with the process, not the result. I really wanted this result. All you people who feel like there’s no mirror for you, the academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back, and for the next four years, we will not forget you.
Amen, brother. I just want to echo everything he just said, but I want to say thank God for my mother, who proved to me through her struggles, and the struggles that Naomie Harris portrayed for you, that we can be somebody. Two boys from Liberty City up here representing 305. This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and nongender-conforming who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you, you, and us. Thank you, thank you. This is for you.
And, of course, the biggest moment of the night came when Moonlight took home the Best Picture award, but, of course, not without the drama and a little more pomp and circumstance.