Fresh off his win for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture at the Golden Globes, previous Academy Award winner (Moonlight) Mahershala Ali anchors the highly anticipated third season of HBO’s crime thriller anthology True Detective. After a highly divisive second season that saw many fans and critics wondering what had gone wrong, the third season seems to offer a tale that appears to be more spiritually aligned with the show’s highly praised and oft talked about first season.
The trailers show Ali as Detective Wayne Hays throughout three different timelines as he recounts, and later attempts to deal with, a series of child abductions in Louisiana he worked decades earlier. Much of the new season is shrouded in mystery, but we do know that Mahershala Ali originally tried out for a supporting role, and series creator Nic Pizzolatto did not write Detective Hays as black. Reportedly, Ali convinced Pizzolatto, and in turn HBO, to cast him as the lead instead, but with his resume alone it’s hard to imagine that it took anyone much convincing.
After several years working as a supporting actor in films with directors like David Fincher and Derek Cianfrance to memorable turns in tentpole franchise flicks like The Hunger Games, Ali got major exposure in 2013 by way of Netflix’s hit original series House of Cards, playing Washington, D.C. inside man Remy Denton. He turned even more heads in 2016, again with Netflix, as the villainous Cottonmouth in the first season of Marvel’s Luke Cage. What happened the same year in film though would transcend the actor forever into a household name.
At the 2016 Academy Awards, Barry Jenkins’ debut feature Moonlight brought home several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, as well as Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim actor to ever win the award. In Moonlight, Ali plays Juan, a local drug dealer who becomes an unlikely mentor and father figure to the film’s protagonist, Chiron Harris. Barry Jenkins captured a quiet intense empathy in Mahershala Ali’s work that also made him such a great villain in Luke Cage and relatable as the seemingly cold, calculated Remy in House of Cards. It’s the way that Jenkins used that in Moonlight that brought out such a memorable performance. Ali’s character could have been wasted in cliché in the hands of a lesser actor, instead he’s perfectly portrayed and feels like a real human being that the audience can root for.
This empathy is what continues to win Ali more and more accolades, and the opportunity to continue starring in big Hollywood films. Regardless of the current controversies surrounding Peter Farelly’s recent Golden Globe winning Green Book, one would be hard pressed to find much criticism directed toward Mahershala Ali’s award winning performance as jazz pianist, Dr. Don Quincy. These qualities in Ali’s performances make him perfect for his upcoming starring role in True Detective. It is the kind of casting that almost feels too good to be true.
Here we have an actor that has turns in top-notch performance after top-notch performance, where he is often subtle, quiet, searching and intense in a role that needs a performer who can balance all of this, while still delivering the action and not chewing through the walls of the scenery. Mahershala Ali may just be, all puns intended, the man for the case. Here’s to a fresh start for Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective, and to having a new detective on the case.