Mahershala Ali turned 43 yesterday and it looks like the career actor is just entering his Hollywood prime. The Hollywood Reporter put him on the cover of their February Academy Awards issue after an undeniable 2016, highlighted by two Oscar-nominated projects.
He’s up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in indie darling Moonlight and he also helped make Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures a box office smash. The parallel success of both films has put Ali on the fast track to Hollywood stardom after nearly two decades of steady work. He now appears poised to reach rare heights for any lifelong Black actor not named Denzel. Talent alone is never enough to make a star, but Ali’s filmography proves that endurance and artistic integrity pay off in the long run, even in a place as tainted as Tinseltown.
Read THR’s “Mahershala’s Moment,” to hear him tell his origin story in his own words. From the depression that followed his parents’ split when he was three, to finding faith in Islam as an adult, Ali’s life story could inspire a script of its own. But you also have to check his IMDB page to fully understand why his rise should not be minimized as overnight success.
Credits on blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Netlix series like House Of Cards and Luke Cage are universally impressive roles he’s landed in recent years. But look deeper at Ali’s catalog and recognize that he has been on the path to Oscar glory for over 15 years.
Early roles on network television dramas like Crossing Jordan, CSI and NYPD Blue set the stage for appearances on HBO’s critically acclaimed series Treme and 2009’s multiple Oscar-winner The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. And while many allow Hollywood’s obvious racial biases to discourage their attempts to break through, it appears that mainstream acceptance was never Ali’s ultimate goal. Instead of chasing stardom, he just chose great roles and consistently delivered until audiences couldn’t help but recognize him.
This Jezebel article attempts to label Ali as a Hollywood “It Boy,” on the level of actors like Chris Pratt, Miles Teller and Ryan Reynolds, thanks to all the attention his performances are earning him. But beyond the author’s creepy insistence on sexualizing Ali in every line, the piece completely mislabels the 43-year-old as an overnight sex symbol instead of a seasoned veteran with serious acting chops.
Jezebel’s Bobby Fingers writes, “Every year there’s a new batch of up-and-coming female actors we’re told (via glossy magazine covers and high-profile talk show appearances) to keep our eyes on. Some people call them “It Girls,” some people would prefer that we didn’t. In 2015 there was Brie Larson, Dakota Johnson, and Alicia Vikander. Last year we had Margot Robbie, Janelle Monae, and Ruth Negga. But the push for men feels a little rarer.”
Fingers goes on to crown Ali Hollywood’s newest “It Boy,” a strange title to give any grown man, but even stranger when you consider that he is being compared to female counterparts who are nearly half his age with half the credits. Of course, Hollywood’s twisted gender politics are partly to blame for how men and women are sexualized by age, but Bobby Fingers and others who fail to recognize the difference between Ali and “It Boys” like Ryan Reynolds are operating under the faulty logic that gave us President Trump.
Like Barack Obama in 2008, Mahershala Ali put in more than his fair share of work and dedication to earn the opportunities and honors he’s currently receiving. Ignoring the many dues he’s paid and treating him like an overnight success or Hollywood gimmick will only lower the bar for everyone who follows him.