Featured image credit: @MahershalaAli
Two years ago, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his part in Moonlight.
In the film, Ali delivers a nuanced and empathetic performance as a drug dealer who offers guidance to a young man grappling with his sexual identity. If you haven’t seen it, you really need to get on board. After all, it’s beautifully acted, visually rich and it only went and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017.
Ali is currently the talk of awards season again thanks to his role in Green Book. The film tells the true story of Don Shirley, a pianist who hired a bodyguard to protect him as he toured the Deep South in 1960s America. It came out in the US in November 2018, and is due to land in UK cinemas on February 1st 2019.
Ali converted to Islam in 2000. Following his Oscar victory, we wrote about how a visit to a mosque with his now wife and her mother would come to change his life: “I just had this really strong response where this prayer is resonating in my body, and I’m, like, crying…I woke up a week later, and I get up and I go, ‘I gotta go to the mosque.’ Long story short, I converted that day.”
Naturally, this moment came at the end of a long spiritual journey. “Being in a relationship with God through Christianity had carried me for a period of time,” he recently told the Guardian. “And then I felt like I needed to understand something deeper. So I went through a process of digging through different religions and philosophies, and ways of connecting to God. And that ended up being Islam for me.”
Prior to 9/11, his faith didn’t seem like such an issue. Yet in the years that followed, he was put on a watch list for travel and his bank account was frozen. He saw how his religion became a political scapegoat, a byword for incendiary views on everything from race to immigration.
And it all came to a head right around the time he was cleaning up at awards shows for his part in Moonlight. When he won the gong for male actor in a supporting role at the SAG Awards, Ali made a speech that was at once personal and political, detailing his relationship with his faith while addressing the wider cultural climate. It wracked up the views online:
“My mother is an ordained minister,” Ali said. “I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I’d converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, you put things to the side [and] I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, and we love each other.”
As he went on to describe the pain that comes from being persecuted by your own community, Ali ended his speech with: “I hope we can do a better job.”
It was a tender moment of grace, empathy and understanding. Ali’s speech represented a departure from the discourse at the time and offered a glimpse into a reality which we should all strive for.
Ali’s words are as relevant now as they were then. It’s little wonder an actor who can move people so profoundly in real life continues to do so on the big screen.