The first time I came across Mahershala Ali was in the Marvel Netflix series, Luke Cage (2016-2018) a couple of years ago, playing the Godfather-esqe chief of crime Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes. Even then, I remember being immediately captivated by his performance; this effortless, smooth yet jarring performance as Harlem’s chief mobster; think the Kingpin drawing upon the swagger of Biggie Smalls, donning a sleek, tailored suit and seeking to legitimise himself through politics.
Ali has played a variety of roles in both TV and film, some of his most notable being The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Remy Dalton in House of Cards (2013-16), and Wayne Has in the most recent series of True Detective (2019). But there is a rare gravity to be acknowledged within Ali’s performance; an alluring dexterity and poise to every role he plays. If anything this can be proved through Ali’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Moonlight (2016), demonstrating a level of mastery similar to that of Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of The Lambs (1991) who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1992 having only appeared in the film for just under 16 minutes. Similarly, Ali appeared in Moonlight for the first half an hour of the film, playing Juan, a drug dealer who assumes the role as the unlikely father figure to the young, vulnerable and mistreated Chiron.
His most recent Academy Awarding winning portrayal as Don Shirley in this year’s Academy Award Best Picture, Green Book (2019) oozes grace, control and thoughtfulness; playing a man who possessed talent far beyond his time of the 1960s, yet contemporaneously dealing with the social conflicts of being a privileged black man in the Jim Crow era; not black enough to fit in within the black community yet not white enough to sit comfortably alongside the Elite. The conflicting and multifaceted nature of the characters Ali has portrayed on screen reflects a compassionate and patient individual underneath, seeking to understand the nuances and motivations of the character. In the space of two years, he has excelled as the first black, Muslim actor to have obtained two Academy Awards in such quick succession, and I have a feeling that this is only the beginning of his legacy.
Nevertheless, Ali’s cinematic performances are only one of a plethora of sides contributing to his eminent presence within Hollywood. In his incredibly moving Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award acceptance speech for Moonlight in 2017, he addressed that working on Moonlight allowed him to see ‘what happens when you persecute people’, with the role providing the opportunity to take these people who have suppressed and ‘uplift’ them; powerfully invoking how we need to do a better job of acting upon this within our own communities. Furthermore, whilst there has been a significant rise in recognition of black artist’s achievements within the film industry in the last decade, the privilege of the white male actor is hardly facing extinction. Through Ali’s progressive influence as an acclaimed actor, he has spoken out on this disparity in privilege as a black actor, where interviews tend to be dominated with questions of race and diversity as opposed to acknowledgement and discussion on his craft, creativity and development as an actor within the industry. Whilst race and diversity is a dialogue that incontrovertibly needs a louder voice within Hollywood, Ali also raises the equally important consideration of how this should not obstruct from the artist and their personal experiences as an actor. Ali has also involved himself with a vast range of charity work such as UNICEF, Vital Voices, Entertainment Industry Foundation, and supported causes to enable more support for victims of slavery and human trafficking, abuse, poverty and AIDS & HIV.
It appears that there is no end to Ali’s compassion and humble presence within the film industry, and I sincerely hope that his affinity for patience will pay off in the near future by winning an Academy Award for Best Actor. His success within the last few years has put him in good stead, but his best is yet to come.