Moonlight's Mahershala Ali: anti-Islam prejudice 'not a shock' if you have grown up black

Oscar-nominated Muslim actor reveals additional discrimination he has faced since converting to Islam in 1999

The actor Mahershala Ali, whose performance in the widely acclaimed Moonlight has made him a favourite for the best supporting actor Academy award, has spoken out about the discrimination he has experienced as an African American and a Muslim.

Ali said he found out that he was on an FBI watchlist after 9/11 and that, as a black man, anti-Islam prejudice “does not feel like a shock”.

Speaking to the Radio Times, he said: “If you convert to Islam after a couple of decades of being a black man in the US, the discrimination you receive as a Muslim doesn’t feel like a shock. I’ve been pulled over, asked where my gun is, asked if I’m a pimp, had my car pulled apart. Muslims will feel like there’s this new discrimination that they hadn’t received before – but it’s not new for us.”

Ali, who was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore and whose mother, Willicia, was an ordained Christian minister, converted to Islam in 1999 and joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 2001.

Having made his name in popular TV series such as The 4400, Treme and House of Cards (in which he played corporate lobbyist Remy Danton), Ali was cast in major roles in films such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 and 2, Free State of Jones, and Hidden Figures.

For his role in Moonlight, Ali has received more than 25 best supporting actor awards, including the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice – though he lost out at the Golden Globes to Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals and the Baftas to Dev Patel for Lion.

Ali with Moonlight co-star Alex R Hibbert.
Ali with Moonlight co-star Alex R Hibbert. Photograph: Allstar/Plan B Entertainment

Ali said his wife, the artist and musician Amatus Sami-Karim, had also experienced discrimination and no longer felt safe walking down the street.

“My wife stopped wrapping [wearing a headscarf] in New York … as she had so many bad experiences. She didn’t feel safe anymore.”

Ali said an airport worker had let slip he was on an FBI watchlist after 9/11 and that his accountant told him “his name had been flagged” when he tried to rent a property and discovered his funds had been frozen.

The actor’s comments come at a time when Hollywood is gearing up to protest against the US travel ban, which has triggered mass dissent among American diplomats as well as wider objections to its apparent targeting of Muslims.

Among the high-profile victims of the ban is Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi, whose attendance at the Academy Awards ceremony on 26 February – where his latest movie, The Salesman, is nominated for best foreign language film – was thrown into doubt after his native country, Iran, was included in the list of seven states banned by the executive order issued on 27 January.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mahershala Ali wins best supporting actor Oscar for Moonlight
The actor wins Academy Award for his role in Barry Jenkins-directed study of gay black man’s coming of age

Andrew Pulver

27, Feb, 2017 @1:49 AM

Article image
From House Of Cards to Moonlight, why Mahershala Ali is having a moment
He’s the breakout star of this year’s buzziest films, next as a Miami drug dealer in Barry Jenkins’ tender coming-of-age drama. Will it win him an Oscar?

Steve Rose

30, Jan, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Agnieszka Holland says cinema is a 'boys' club' that ignores women
Acclaimed film-maker says TV is now a more female-friendly environment and criticises Hollywood for refusing to believe women can make blockbusters

Ben Child

14, Apr, 2016 @10:14 AM

Article image
Why I love Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali
He always seems coiled and controlled, fleshing out minor TV and movie roles until he fills the screen

Bim Adewunmi

18, Feb, 2017 @5:59 AM

Article image
Late-night hosts on Moonlight's Oscar win: America reaches 'peak blackness'
Comics, including Trevor Noah and Jimmy Kimmel, discuss the surprise awards victory of the low-budget drama and the gaffe that preceded the announcement

Guardian staff

28, Feb, 2017 @3:53 PM

Article image
Hollywood's fatal attraction to TV: why studios are turning to the small screen
Paramount is the latest major studio to reboot its movies as TV series, with the likes of American Gigolo and Shutter Island to get the treatment along with Fatal Attraction

Andrew Pulver

02, Jul, 2015 @5:33 PM

Article image
Sidney Poitier's Mister Tibbs voted best performance by black actor in public poll
Actor’s turn in In the Heat of the Night tops the BFI’s Black Star poll, while industry experts pick Angela Bassett’s performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It

Alan Evans

20, Oct, 2016 @3:30 PM

Article image
French TV's reputation spirals upward
The Returned, Spiral and the upcoming Marseille starring Gerard Depardieu are just the tip of France’s €67.5m TV export industry

Bruce Crumley in Paris

19, Feb, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Robin Wright says she had to fight for equal pay on House of Cards
Actor threatened to go public unless she was given the same pay as co-star Kevin Spacey

Bonnie Malkin

18, May, 2016 @3:10 AM

Article image
Seth MacFarlane primed for Oscars night lead role

Producers hope Family Guy creator will attract back teens and sate traditionalists

Catherine Shoard

22, Feb, 2013 @1:16 PM