“I always hope to be a better person tomorrow than today.”
If anyone said in 2015 that an auxiliary star like Mahershala Ali would go on two win numerous awards and accolades such as two Academy Awards, a BAFTA, three SAGs, a Golden Globe and Emmy, they would probably not believe you. For Mahershala Ali, who is a deeply spiritual person, being ranked 23rd in The New York Times’ list of 25 Greatest Actors of 21st Century was heartwarming. Ali has always been vocal about his life as well as struggles as a Black Muslim, and on his 47th birthday today, we shall delve deeper into his life and trace his journey towards becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Mahershala Ali was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore in Oakland on February 16, 1974, to Willicia Goines and Phillip Gilmore, and his name was inspired by that of the prophetic child in the Book of Isaiah. Willicia was an ordained Baptist minister and was very religiously inclined, while Phillip was an agnostic. As Mahershala has recounted in later interviews, his father did not believe that Jesus was God and embraced other faiths. This inspired a deep questioning spirit in Mahershala who later went on to convert himself. The reality, though, was that he was intensely affected by his father suddenly leaving them when he was three to pursue his career. It traumatised him and left a deep impact on his adult life.
Ali attended St. Mary’s College of California with a basketball scholarship and majored in mass communications. There he enrolled himself under the name of Hershal Gilmore to play basketball for SMC Gaels. However, he quickly quit owing to the treatment meted out to the athletes. It was here that he found his passion for acting. A professor approached him to take part in a production of Othello, which was quite revolutionary for he was a black man and most of the cast was white; however, he went on to star in Spunk. During this production, seeing the appreciation and ovations, he realised his passion for acting. “That was the trigger for me: when I felt that was the only thing I could do, and if I did anything else I wouldn’t be on track,” he said.
After being an apprentice at California Shakespeare Theatre as well as working for Gavin Report, he enrolled for an MFA at Tisch School of the Arts, New York. New York changed the way he viewed things. He was exposed to a vast gamut of ideas and started questioning the beliefs that were instilled in him at a very young age. He was overwhelmed by this burning question and almost as a catalyst, his meeting with his future wife Amatus Sami-Karim, whose father left her questioning her beliefs about Islam, acted as a catalyst. Quickly, his turbulent heart found solace in the quietude of mosques, and he converted to Islam. This led to immense friction with his religious mother, which would take nearly a decade to fix. He also later recounted how difficult it was to be a black Muslim in the United States, especially after the 9/11 attacks.
In 2010, Ali came to identify as Mahershala after he was told by crew members that his name was too big to fit on the poster. Unlike what Leonardo DiCaprio was told, Ali was never asked to change his name to make it more accessible. He spoke of how he did not want to risk cultivating a relationship with the audience just to maintain the sanctity of his name. Instead, he would rather embrace the experience of being an actor. Ali has mainly starred in supporting roles such as Remmy Danton in House of Cards, Cornell Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage, Boggs in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and the most well-known character being Tizzy Weathers in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and more.
However, it was in the 2016 indie film Moonlight by Barry Jenkins that Ali received public attention. The film revolved around the stages of growth in the lives of Chiron – childhood, adolescence and adulthood. As the African-American boy tries to survive in the world, grappling with issues including sexuality, identity, abuse and more, the advice of the kind drug-dealer Juan functions as a guiding force and helps him get by. A raw and captivating take on the intersection of blackness, masculinity and vulnerability, Moonlight was visually fluid and seductive. It is mellow and compassionate about the crisis of identity and sexuality in a lonely world.
Somehow, the experiences of Juan and Chiron find common ground in being a vulnerable black man trying to seek his place in the world. The duality of existence, the possibility of being different from what one is perceived to be is continuously highlighted in the film. As Juan teaches Chiron how to float, it is almost as if the former is teaching him to swim in the waters of life. As Juan, Ali received numerous accolades, including his first Academy Award. It was during Moonlight that Ali realised the intolerance we harbour towards the other.
In 2018, Ali starred as Don Shirley in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, where Shirley, a jazz artist, tours the Deep South with a bouncer named Tony Lip and, during the tour, encounters the brutalities and dangers of racism during the tumultuous era of racial segregation. While the film gained a lot of criticism from Shirley’s family for distorting the truth and for presenting a “symphony of lies”, Ali received his second Academy Award as well as high praise from critics for his soulful performance. He later apologised to the Shirley family for hurting their sentiments. He had an interesting take on Shirley’s life. According to Ali, Shirley was a misfit for he was “not black enough for the black community” nor was he “white enough to be accepted in his profession”. Shirley was also “not ready to be accepted by society” due to his homosexuality. As a black, gay man, he was the most marginalised and pained – his pained smile in the film was described by Ali as the tactic used by a “black person navigating the world” without knowing how to respond to various situations. He emphasised the double consciousness, which is the black man’s burden.
While Ali is still working on other projects, fans are most excited to see him as the supernatural superhero Blade in an MCU film, who, in the comics, dedicated his life to become the deadliest vampire hunter. Ali is hardworking, amicable and lion-hearted; these are rare finds in an industry saturated with mercenary sharks. His spiritual quest towards love and peace is inspiring. His journey teaches us to pursue our dreams despite all odds that lie in our path. Ali’s speech thundered amidst the hall as he got on the podium during his acceptance speech and hoped America to do a “better job” at being accepting. As he was quoted saying, “We live in diverse communities with all sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds. The more our entertainment can be a reflection of the world we live in, the better it is for all of us.” While it is unclear if the US and Hollywood, in general, is being more tolerant and accepting of diversity, it is people like Ali who are the face of a new future, striving relentlessly to make it a better place. One can only hope.
“Your life, your circumstances change, and you have to continue to grow as a person, and once you have means and opportunity, you have to make different choices to protect what you have.”