Every now and again, an actor comes along and immediately leaves their mark on the landscape of cinematic history. Mahershala Ali may not quite be a household name, but in the world of film, he is fast becoming a generational talent. He consistently dominates awards season, offers a commanding screen presence, and is the kind of name that is guaranteed to get moviegoers excited.
It’s easy to forget that Ali only truly came to prominence in Hollywood in 2016, with his breakout role in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning romance movie Moonlight. Since then, the actor has enjoyed a prolific run of projects across both film and TV series, picking up eight major acting awards along the way, including two Oscars.
This level of quick-fire success is rather unprecedented for any performer, let alone a Black actor. As much as awards bodies like The Academy are trying to diversify their annual recognition strategies, Black actors are still massively underrepresented. So, what is it about Mahershala Ali that has allowed him to break the mould, and how did he become the new king of Hollywood?
Ask any actor and they will tell you there is no such thing as overnight success. Breaking into Hollywood is no mean feat; it takes years and years of blood, sweat, and tears. For Mahershala Ali, this journey actually began back in 2001 with the fairly obscure TV series Crossing Jordan, and he spent the best part of a decade working on various television shows along the way.
Within this period though, Ali did make his big-screen debut. First up was a minor role in David Fincher’s Brad Pitt-led drama movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in 2008. It is this movie that actually earned Ali his first taste of awards recognition, with a nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Cast from the Screen Actors Guild.
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From here, Ali’s career began to gain some traction with roles in the thriller movie The Place Beyond the Pines, and a recurring role in the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise. Slowly but surely, Mahershala Ali was getting noticed.
While Ali may be better known for his film roles now, it was actually in the Netflix TV series House of Cards that I first remember seeing him in action. His subtle, composed performance as Remy Danton not only earned him another ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), but also nabbed the actor his first individual nomination, this time at the Emmys.
From here on out, the accolades and the acclaim didn’t stop. Indeed, 2016 was a real banner year for Mahershala Ali, with the actor truly flexing his incredible range as a performer; from playing the bad guy in Marvel’s Luke Cage show on streaming service Netflix, to his most poignant and powerful performance in the independent hit Moonlight.
It is this performance, as the gentle yet flawed Juan, the all-important father figure to the confused and conflicted Little, which stands out the most. This role garnered a mass of critical praise for Mahershala Ali, as well as securing his first Oscar nomination, and win, along with his first SAG award, and a nomination from BAFTA and the Golden Globes.
Away from the major awards bodies, it’s worth noting that his career-defining display in Moonlight ended up bagging Ali an astounding 28 other awards from various film critics associations and film festivals. This kind of success does not happen often, but Ali wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.
Two years later, Ali swept the awards ceremonies once again, this time for his supporting role in the movie based on a true story, Green Book. He went two-for-two at the Oscars, taking home another statue for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. And, he also won his first BAFTA and Golden Globe award, as well as doubling up his SAG awards success.
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What Mahershala Ali has achieved in his whole career is unthinkable for most. But, to have achieved all this pretty much within the last six years, is testament to the versatility and nuance he holds as an actor.
In the last six years, no other performer in Hollywood has been as decorated and celebrated as Mahershala Ali. In the annals of Black actors, Mahershala Ali has rewritten the history books and has well and truly carved out a legacy for himself, as well as paving the way for fellow Black performers to gain recognition.
So, when you’ve conquered Hollywood and filled your mantlepiece with an array of prestigious awards, what do you do next? For Ali, his next big move is his imminent arrival in the MCU, as the badass vampire-killing anti-hero Blade. Ali will take on the iconic role in the near future as part of the MCU’s Phase 4, rebooting the character which was first brought to the silver screen by Wesley Snipes back in 1998.
The cultural impact of that original Blade movie cannot be overstated, and it’s very likely that when Mahershala Ali embodies the character next, he could have a similar effect to that of Chadwick Boseman and his portrayal of Black Panther, igniting the passions of millions of Black comic book fans the world over.
And, if the vampire life doesn’t work out, Mahershala Ali could always return to his roots in the rap game. With fire bars and heaps of swagger, we wouldn’t even blame him for reviving his Prince Ali alter-ego.
that moment you find out that mahershala ali was once a rapper named prince ali 🤯 pic.twitter.com/8aFU7Puoj6
— Genius (@Genius) February 12, 2022
To quote Mahershala’s Moonlight mantra, “You gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” I, for one, am very glad he decided to grace our screens and become one of the finest actors of his generation. Long live, the king!