How Mahershala Ali Overcame a Difficult Childhood, Found Islam and Won an Oscar
Inside Mahershala Ali's incredible journey from a difficult childhood to an Oscar nomination
His turn as the kindhearted drug dealer Juan has earned Ali his first Academy Award nomination, and after taking home the equivalent prize at the SAG awards, he emerged as an Oscar favorite.
In his SAG acceptance speech, which came on the heels of President Trump’s controversial immigration ban, Ali gave rare insight into his personal life as he delivered a powerful critique of religious persecution:
“What I think I learned from working on Moonlight is you see what happens when you persecute people,” he said. “They fold into themselves. What I was so thankful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, taking that opportunity to uplift him, and tell him that he mattered and that he was okay and accept him. And I hope that we do a better job of that.”
While Ali credited the role for opening his eyes to the consequences of repression, he could have been speaking from personal experience. A natural introvert who battled depression throughout his youth, Ali remembers “folding into himself” not unlike the character he protects in Moonlight. Other themes, like Juan’s drug dealing to make ends meet, also had real-life significance for the actor.
A Melancholy Youth
“I was borderline depressed for years,” Ali told The Hollywood Reporter in a candid interview. Those feelings took hold after his parents split up. His dad left the family when Ali was 3 to pursue a career in dance. “There was a sadness over me, a melancholy. That’s always been a part of me — those are some of the things that lead you to the arts,” he added.
Ali, whose birth name is Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, was born in Oakland, California in 1974. He grew up about 5 miles away from Oakland in the safer neighborhood of Hayward. His grandmother was an ordained Baptist minister — a position his mother would hold later in life — and he was raised in a strict, religious household. His father, however, was an agnostic, and the two remained close after the divorce.
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His mom remarried, but even with his stepdad’s salary and his mom’s earnings as a part-time hairdresser, the family struggled to get by. “Like so many families, we were dealing with limited means. We weren’t poor at all, but we had some challenging times financially,” he told THR. “When my stepdad got laid off … we were really trying to find our footing for a couple of years.”
There was also tension with his step-dad, who came into his life when he was around 9 or 10 years old. A disciplinarian who towered over him at 6’6″, he and Ali often butted heads. Still, the actor credits his stepdad with keeping him from getting in trouble. “My mom and stepdad were strict,” he told THR. “I couldn’t date, I couldn’t go out. And I was a kid who was never good at just taking no for an answer. I needed to understand why. And sometimes they weren’t interested in explaining.”
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Always athletic, Ali found refuge in sports. He was a standout playing basketball and racing his bike with the neighborhood kids, but even then he never quite fit in. “First I started in BMX racing, and later got into basketball and all this stuff. I never really related to that whole thing about beating someone else, that’s just not my spirit,” he told Death, Sex and Money. Comparing himself to an older cousin who became a professional BMX biker, Ali told THR, “He was aggressive to the point of being a daredevil, but seeing that — and seeing the results of an approach that felt hypermasculine — scared me. I found myself frozen between those two places, trying to find the balance.”
Staying Out of Trouble
As he got older, Ali began to witness the effects of race and poverty on his community. “I started seeing cousins go to jail for armed robbery, drugs,” he told THR. “My friend’s mom was a drug dealer, but I didn’t know she was a drug dealer. Drugs were a way for people to support themselves without advertising it. It was done covertly. Today, we are used to seeing all these chains and these cars, when a lot of times it was done discreetly and to support someone’s income.”
While the people he saw get involved with drugs were “normal, solid, good people,” the repercussions of that lifestyle were clear. “I had a few friends killed, not in Hayward but in Oakland,” he told the magazine. “It was tough. I saw so many people who had some form of genius that I admired, athletic or academic or artistic. And in the circumstances of life, they embraced a path that guided them to some form of mediocrity. And that scared me, to see guys five years older than me, that I totally looked up to and admired, and then at some point they were still hanging out at the high school, not really doing anything.”
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More than any of the drug violence or crime, Ali remembers being affected by the AIDs epidemic, which struck many of his father’s friends in the musical theater scene. “I saw a lot of guys die from AIDS, people I was close to,” he added. “I’ve seen more people die from that than from gun violence. Every year, there were friends that my dad had, 28 or 29 years old, who died.”
Those experiences with loss weighed heavily on Ali. He developed insomnia and began spending sleepless nights planning his escape from the trappings that caught up to his peers. Eventually, he discovered that putting his thoughts on paper helped him cope, and those writings formed the foundation for his burgeoning love for the arts.
But at the same time, his relationship with his parents began to sour. “At a certain point, my mom just didn’t know me. There were years when we didn’t talk,” he told THR. The riff began around the age of 18, and eventually led to Ali moving in with his grandparents. “It’s not that [my parents] didn’t believe in me; they didn’t understand,” he added. “It all goes to trying to accept each other’s points of view and coexist.”
From Hoops to the Stage
It was Ali’s love of sports that led him to acting. He won a basketball scholarship to Saint Mary’s College in 1992, where he met a professor named Rebecca Engle who asked him to try out for Othello. He ended up passing over Othello for a role in Spunk — a play his father had taken him to see as a kid. Every night, the performance received a standing ovation. “That was the trigger for me: when I felt that was the only thing I could do, and if I did anything else I wouldn’t be on track,” he told THR. “It was therapeutic to get down to the seeds of other people’s dysfunction, with the goal to crack it open and shed light on it.”
Not long after Ali had found this new purpose in life, his father died from an ongoing illness. “He wasn’t well before he passed. . . . When he wasn’t well, I would perform,” he told Vanity Fair. Still, Ali regrets that his dad never got to see him on stage. “I finally had something that he could deeply connect with, where there would have been a real sense of pride, and he never, ever saw me act,” Ali told THR. It was also around this time that he began to explore his spirituality. Realizing his religious identity had always been tied to his mother’s beliefs, he started exploring other ways of thinking.
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Finding Love and Faith
When he met his wife Amatus in graduate school, they were both going through a spiritual awakening. An undergrad studying experimental theater, Amatus was questioning her belief in Islam just as Ali was opening himself to it. “I was looking for my anchor or the thing to bring structure to my spiritual walk,” he told the magazine. “She was almost coming out of it, and I was going into it.” The first time he joined her at mosque, he broke down in tears during the sermon despite not understanding the Arabic words.
He felt compelled to return a week later over Christmas break and again wept openly during the sermon. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” he said. “It was beyond explanation. There was this connection that pierced through it all for me. And I felt like I was in the right place.” That same night he pledged himself to Islam.
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During his SAG acceptance speech, Ali recalled how difficult it was telling his mom about the conversion. In fact, it took about 10 or 12 years before she was able to embrace him as a Muslim. Now, Ali and his mom “are in an extraordinary positive place,” and he credits the reconciliation to their mutual understanding, love and acceptance.
With his career taking off and his wife pregnant with their first child, Ali remains the same thoughtful, reflective person, striving to better himself. “We all have to do work to be our best selves, to civilize ourselves in the way we see fit,” he tells THR. “I’m dealing with the things that keep me from being the fullest person I can be.”