Colored Only | Mahersala Ali

By Marianina Patsa

It took almost twenty years for him to become a great movie star, but he succeeded, above and beyond all expectations.  Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar award, and the second black actor (Denzel Washington was the first), who has received not one, but two such golden statuettes.

Initially, Ali hadn’t thought about becoming an actor, but he could have made a movie about the story of his life.  He was born on February 16th, 1974 in Oakland California, as Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore.  His mom was just 16 years old and his father 17, but didn’t stay together for very long.  His father won a dance competition and left for New York to study. Hersal (as his dad called back then), visited his father once a year, and watched him play in various musicals.

“I met him a total of ten times, but he always treated me with respect.” His mother had remarried, and worked as a hairdresser.  Ali’s step father tried to instill some discipline, but Ali and his mother weren’t getting along, so he moved in with his grandparents.  His relationship with his mother was so shaken, that they hadn’t spoken to each other for fifteen years.

By high school, Ali is an upcoming basketball star, but still felt that he hadn’t found his way or his “tribe”, so he began writing poetry to help him better express his feeling.  His involvement in sports helped him gain a desirable college scholarship, and he may have ended up playing for the NBA, if acting hadn’t won him over.  “I took my first acting lesson just to avoid the second semester of Spanish”.  It was then that he caught the “bug”.  He graduated in Mass Communications from St. Mary’s College in 1996, and went on to study acting at New York University.  He began his career in 2001 under his real name, but after a while, even though he grew up as a Christian, he found his own god.  Thus, he became Muslim and acquired the last name, ‘Ali’.

His first role was in the television series “Crossing Jordan” where, as he says, “I was just playing a black guy”.  But after a number of relatively meaningless roles, he found his way.  He played in the series, “Law & Order”, “House of Cards” and in the films “The Hunger Games” 1 & 2 and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.  The movie that changed his life was “Moonlight”, giving him his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a Golden Globe award.

“The Green Book” is the movie that recently brought him his second golden statuette.  The film tells the story of Don Shirley, a very talented black pianist who can’t find his place in the world, as he is not black enough for the black community or white enough for his profession. Even though he’s a star, he enters his concerts through the back door.  He also has a white chauffeur (which was unheard of at the time).  His sexuality helps him connect to people, but he is lonely, almost like an alien who just came from another planet.

Shirley’s alien resemblance is just like Ali was some years ago, when he lived under a different name, religion and career orientation. Today, Ali knows exactly where he belongs: he lives with actress Amatus-Sami Karim, has a two-year-old daughter and in his spare time, is a rapper under the name Prince Ali.  He is currently involved in the third season of the HBO’s series “True Detective,” while also building the future for his own production company called “Know Wonder”.


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