Sweatshirt, 0, by AMI Alexandre Mattiussi at Saks Fifth Avenue / Pants, 5, by Valentino at Saks Fifth Avenue / Flip-flops,, by Havaianas / Hat by Borsalino / Location Avalon, Catalina Island, California
But not in the MAGA way. After winning every award under the sun for his role in 'Moonlight,' Mahershala Ali used his platform to speak up for love and tolerance. And though he’s been profiled by Berkeley cops and placed on the terrorist watch list for having a Muslim name, he still believes that "in time the pendulum will swing in the right direction.”
There’s not actually a golden light shining down on Mahershala Ali from the ceiling of the Santa Monica café where I first meet him, but it feels like there is. He looks in real life the way old MGM movies made leading men look on-screen. Vivid and dashing.
We are the only black people here. Ali is, by a substantial margin, the best-dressed man in the room. He wears a brown cardigan and a simple maroon T-shirt; a knit skullcap sits tilted on his head. They are not fancy clothes, but they are worn with certainty and ease, as if they were. I watch as the people around us notice him and then try to play it cool.
The past year has brought Ali a rash of fame after nearly two decades spent toiling away as what you might call a blue-collar actor. A four-season run on House of Cards may have elevated Ali to minor renown, but it was his performance in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight as Juan, a drug dealer who takes a vulnerable child under his wing, that launched him into the stratosphere. Ali gave a lot of speeches this winter and spring, as he won a best-supporting-actor trophy at nearly every awards show, including the Oscars. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, on the heels of Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban, Ali made a compelling, impassioned call for sanity: “What I’ve learned from working on Moonlight is we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves.” Juan, he said, “saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community and [took] that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered”—Ali’s eyes filled with tears, his baritone turned quavering and rough—“that he was okay, and accept him. And I hope that we do a better job of that.”
The speech was a remarkable thing to watch, a near spiritual moment amid a humdrum parade of movie-industry self-congratulation. Here was a dark-skinned American Muslim in a gleaming white tuxedo jacket gently, word by word, opening up his heart to the audience.
Like many actors, he is charismatic and clever and easy to talk to. But perhaps more than most, he is thoughtful. He wants to say what’s on his mind, and he wants to say it correctly. He is a black man who has been navigating America for 43 years. He wants to choose his words carefully, so that when he talks, you don’t get it twisted.
“When suddenly you go from being followed in Barneys to being fawned over, it will mess with your head,” he tells me, leaning over the table. He remembers being on subway trains and seeing people hide their rings from him: “those experiences that you have from age 10, when you start getting these little messages that you are something to be feared.” Even as a celebrity, he’s experienced how the script can always be flipped. “Walking down the street in Berkeley,” he says, “and some cops roll up on you and say straight up, ‘Give me your ID,’ and you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
I ask if his sudden and breathless celebration by white people ever makes him feel like a... I’m searching for the words.
“A way to relieve pressure hello kitty thanksgiving facebook covers pictures for people?” he asks me, stirring his tea. “Like a kind of peace offering? I accept it as a possibility. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s what it is.… As long as what you’re doing as an artist is resonating with people, I’m not as concerned about if that’s convoluted or not by their own prejudices, because at the end of the day you gotta accept people on their terms.”
A few years ago, Ali found an old postcard in a storage locker that belonged to his father. It was a head shot from the early ’90s, the kind of thing performers used to send to casting directors before e-mail became ubiquitous: “Nice to meet you, hope all is well, here’s my phone number in case you forgot.” The man in the picture is Phillip Gilmore, a regular in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, perpetual chorus member and understudy on Broadway. Mahershala Ali’s father. By the time Ali came across this postcard, Gilmore had been dead for 20 years.
“He’s got his shirt off, and he’s got this pose, and he’s flexing—” Ali stops talking in order to properly demonstrate, throwing his head back and crossing his arms. “He looked really great, and on the back of it, addressed to my grandmother, it said, ‘Hey, Ma, still trying to be that leading man.’ ” Ali pauses, shakes his head. He wants me to know that this is who he comes from: a performer who hustled his whole life to make a living for himself.
His father left his mother when Ali was still a toddler, moving from their home in Hayward, California, to New York City after he won a contest on Soul Train. In the intervening decades, and especially since his daughter was born in February, Ali has made peace with his father’s decision. “When I look at the fact that I was more than twice my father’s age when I became a parent, it helps me put a little bit of his situation into perspective. It helps me appreciate and respect that my parents were able to do what they did do and love me as deeply as they did.”
Ali’s mother, Willicia Rucker, re-married in the 1980s. Her father was a Baptist minister, and she ran a household devoted to routine and prayer, rules and order. (She would later be ordained herself.) Ali has described his youth as melancholy, burdened, in some sense, by the gravity that comes with forming identities in competing worlds. Spending summers with his father in Manhattan theaters, with artists and dancers, and the rest of the year with his mother in a working-class town a nation away. Playing basketball and competitively riding BMX while stealing away to compose poems and fantasize about plays and movies. Having to maintain an outward semblance of street credibility while guided by the amorous heart of an artist.
In 1992 he got a basketball scholarship to Saint Mary’s, a small college near Oakland, but he soon grew disenchanted with college athletics and started to take an interest in acting. Within a few years he was training with some of the best actors in the country at the N.Y.U. graduate theater program. The culture shock was intense: It was here, he said, that he began to feel “the edges of my natural talent.”
“I wasn’t feeling very good at [acting],” he says, “and therefore it started to affect how I felt about myself.” He was also in New York for the first time without his father.
Then fate intervened in the form of Kenneth Washington, a visiting professor and the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater. At the end of the school year, Washington selected 12 students from across the country to join the elite Guthrie summer training program. Ali didn’t even try out.
“I didn’t audition for it because I didn’t feel like I’d get it,” he says. Washington, though, wasn’t going to take no for an answer—he held a spot open and waived the audition requirement. After that summer, Ali says, he returned to N.Y.U. “confident and clear” about his future as an actor.
It’s not lost on him that, even with his ability and drive, it took an extraordinary act by a single individual to keep him from quitting. Washington, he says, “empowered me to create my own rules” when it came to creating characters. He was one of the first people Ali thanked when he won the Academy Award.
Ali got his first professional break shortly after graduation, when he was cast as Dr. Trey Sanders on Crossing Jordan, a role to which he brought as much charm as possible, given how many of his scenes were opposite a bloated corpse. After he was written off the show in 2002, he had to wait six years before appearing in a major feature film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where he managed to imbue the Kindly Black Dude Who Helps a White Guy in Trouble role with a surprising amount of depth. For the next few years, he survived on a slew of procedurals, video-game voice-overs, and the occasional feature (the 2010 man-cave classic Predators; the indie darling The Place Beyond the Pines).
By the time he was nabbing roles like lobbyist Remy Danton on House of Cards and the serpentine villain Cottonmouth on Marvel’s Luke Cage, he had been scratching away in L.A. for over a decade and was the guy everyone knew from somewhere but no one could remember where. He had made a lasting impression. But he had yet to do it in a lasting role.
Moonlight has been treated, rightfully, as a prestige film. Since it debuted on the festival circuit in 2016, its reception has been all banquets and tuxedos, clinking glasses and white tablecloths. But as director Barry Jenkins points out to me, the first ten minutes or so are, essentially, hood as hell. Ali’s character, Juan, pulls up to a drug spot. Walks unhurried across the street, lights the cigarette he has stored behind his ear, talks to a dealer who works for him. Offscreen, a crackhead expostulates about how poorly the dealer has been treating him.
Like Remy Danton, Juan is an intelligent, charismatic man who has risen to power through a combination of canniness and well-timed displays of compassion. “Remy Danton and Juan are the same person,” Jenkins says. “It’s just context that’s different. It’s a code that’s switched.”
Although Ali is only on-camera for a handful of scenes, his presence reverberates throughout the film. Jenkins tells me that on set, Ali would spend time with Alex Hibbert, who plays the main character as a boy, helping the newcomer find his way through the film’s more emotional material. “It’s just hard to spend time with him and not come away thinking there’s something different about this guy that sets him apart from the rest of us,” Jenkins says.
Ali says that he approaches difficult scenes “humbly,” trying to stay in the mind of the character as much as possible. “I’ll find a song or two that is right for that moment and that the character really connects to. I’ll listen to that and try to stay in the thoughts of that character, try to stay in the time he’s experiencing.”
I ask singer and Moonlight co-star Janelle Monáe what she would call it if she had to write a song about Ali. She thinks for some time. “ ‘Leading with His Heart,’ ” she finally tells me. “You can never go wrong when you put your ego to the side and lead with your heart. In all situations. Business, personal. And that’s what I saw from Mahershala.”
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Believe it or not, Mahershala is a nickname. His given name is Mahershalalhashbaz, which also, believe it or not, is not a Muslim name but a Hebrew one. It is the longest name in the Old Testament, belonging to the second prophetic son of Isaiah, and it means “Hurry to the spoils!” or, in other words, “Look at all this good shit here!”
It also means that after 9/11, Ali found himself on a terrorist watch list. “They would be like, ‘Yeah, your name matches the name of a terrorist,’ ” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was like, ‘What terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and an Arabic last name? Who’s that guy?’ ”
He converted to Islam in 1999, after attending a mosque with his future wife. His faith, he says, has helped him become a better actor: “It benefits me from the standpoint of really creating empathy for these characters that I try to embody, other human beings with issues as deep and personal as my own. Because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress.” The daily practice of the religion, he says, “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.”
Ali and I are talking in a bar in downtown L.A. that is attached to a bowling alley. The conversation flows more easily here than it did in the café in Santa Monica. More interruptions and tangents. He has been house-hunting but is not happy with the prospects. The market is rough, even for an Oscar winner.
“I think African-Americans have a very convoluted relationship with patriotism. The fact is, we essentially were the abused child."
I ask him if he’s any good at bowling. “Oh, I’m average,” he tells me. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I mean, I might luck out and roll three strikes and then follow it up with a gutter ball.”
Eventually, we get up and claim a lane. He starts out shaky, but somewhere around the fourth frame, everything changes. His level of focus increases, almost imperceptibly. Before his next attempt, he pauses, centers himself. In this focused posture, he cuts a striking figure. It’s as if the alley becomes quiet. Then he rolls. Straight down the middle. Strike one.
We celebrate with a handshake slash bro hug. He goes again. Another strike. Unbelievable. Then, as you may by now have guessed, he does it again. Three strikes in a row. And then his very next attempt is a gutter ball to the left.
“See? Just like I told you.”
It is mid-afternoon, and the music is loud even though we are the only people there. His voice, however, cuts easily through the noise. We start talking about politics, which spins out into a wider discussion of what it means to be an American.
“I think African-Americans have a very convoluted relationship with patriotism,” he says. “The fact is, we essentially were the abused child. We still love the parent, but you can’t overlook the fact that we have a very convoluted relationship with the parent. I absolutely love this country, but like so many people have some real questions and concerns about how things have gone down over the years and where we’re at. And that’s from a place of love, because I want the country to be what it says it is on paper.”
In the background, Anthony Kiedis is singing California, rest in peace over and over. Ali doesn’t seem to notice. “I sincerely believe we have the capacity to actually make this country great,” he says. “There are enough people, there are enough believers out there, there are enough intelligent, empathetic souls out there that want good for the whole. I don’t know if it’ll happen in my lifetime, but I believe in time the pendulum will swing in the right direction.”
I found just one picture of Mahershala Ali the basketball player. It is 1992, and he is a senior on the Mt. Eden squad in Hayward. He is posed palming the ball and power-stancing, his legs slightly apart. His face is held tightly in the impenetrable and uncompromising mean mug that black boys the world over have learned to give to the camera. Never to be taken for soft. Never to be seen. I wonder how many Americans would have looked at that face and seen the face of a Shakespearean actor, an Academy Award winner, a kind and seemingly virtuous man, a man who would one day open his heart to a nation, weep openly, make a call for peace at perhaps our most troubled time? How many would have seen just another black teenager?
That image reminded me of a school photo I had once seen of my father. In it he is younger, maybe 12, but he, too, is warning the world away with that same “don’t fuck with me” look. I came across the picture when I was a teenager, and it was the first time I realized that even though my father is a man who will stay up all night discussing spirituality and history with you, the world saw him as just a black kid. Maybe it was the first time I realized the world saw me as that, too. He is 72 now, and like Ali he is a convert to Islam. We don’t talk much. When we do, it is distant and gentle. I told him that I was working on a story about the actor from Moonlight. His voice, normally restrained, seemed to break a little. “You know I’m living vicariously through you, son,” he told me.
“We have the capacity to actually make this country great,” Ali says. “I don’t know if it’ll happen in my lifetime, but in time the pendulum will swing in the right direction.”
My father once dreamed of being a writer. He studied journalism for a year at the University of Maryland when he was in his early 20s. But somewhere in there he lost his confidence. He was one of 12 children, from the North Side of Pittsburgh, surrounded in classes by kids from educated families, kids whose parents had degrees and jobs. It’s odd to think of my dad, now aged, now relaxed and confident, now deeply spiritual, ever doubting himself. But I wonder how many black journalists he had to look at in 1973. I wonder what it would have been like if he’d had a Kenneth Washington of his own, to remind him that he belonged here.
In our interviews, I notice that Ali uses the phrase “fold into yourself” a lot, the same phrase that came up in his SAG acceptance speech. It’s not until our last ten minutes together that I ask him about it. Standing outside in downtown Los Angeles, now exposed to the stares of people who slow down when they pass, some trying surreptitiously to take pictures, he pauses before he answers.
“I think I identify with characters who have to make themselves smaller,” he says. “Because that’s been my experience, as a large black man, to make people feel safer. Just because I always found”—he pauses again; he is exceedingly precise—“witnessing other people’s discomfort made me uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, it’s a lot of b.s., too. Sometimes you gotta be like, ‘Eff that.’ ” A white family is passing us on an escalator, and I track Ali’s eyes as he self-protectively tracks them. I realize that in all the hours we’ve spent together, no one has asked him for an autograph or a picture, but people have hovered and secretly produced phones. Waiters have stumbled over their words. He has always offered a kind smile, he has always sought to put them at ease, “pre-emptively reacting to what you think people might be thinking,” as he puts it.
In a few minutes, he will go home and relieve his wife of baby duty. On the way to my car, I think about how few people there are like him. A man who holds an Oscar and a man from whom people hide their jewelry. His daily work is to make a living by being twice as indestructible, twice as powerful, yet half as threatening as an average white man. He is a winner in a country that seems to want people like him to lose. And perhaps, as he said, that can be misused as some kind of lazy peace offering. Here is a black man whose success proves that there’s nothing wrong at all. What’s everyone whining about? Anyone can do it. You just have to be extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily hardworking, extraordinarily forgiving, extraordinarily ambitious, extraordinarily good-looking, extraordinarily well-dressed, and extraordinarily lucky. You just have to know how to make winning look a hell of a lot easier than it really is.
Carvell Wallace is a writer living in Oakland. This is his first article for GQ.
This story originally appeared in the July 2017 issue with the title “LimeLight.”
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