Five Iconic Mahershala Ali Performances

Ali is notable as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. We break down five of his most memorable performances.

Five Iconic Mahershala Ali Performances
Mahershala Ali is one of Hollywood's most in-demand actors with his diverse skill set and wide-ranging background in film, television and theater.

Mahershala Ali is an accomplished actor who has gained widespread recognition for his versatile and compelling performances. He has many accolades under his belt, including a Golden Globe Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and two Academy Awards. Ali’s first win at the Academy Awards, which was for Best Supporting Actor in “Moonlight” (2016), positioned him as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar; when he went on to win the same award for his performance in “Green Book” (2018), he became the first Black actor to win two Oscars in the same category and the second Black actor to win multiple acting Oscars. Accordingly, Time magazine named Ali one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2019, and in 2020, The New York Times ranked him among the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century.

In honor of Ali’s standout performance in the new Netflix film “Leave the World Behind” (2023), we’re celebrating five of his most iconic performances.

  1. "Moonlight" (2016)

Ali delivers a standout performance in "Moonlight,” earning him critical acclaim and the first of his Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. Directed by Barry Jenkins, "Moonlight" is a coming-of-age drama that explores the life of a young Black man named Chiron through three pivotal stages of his life.

Ali plays Juan, a compassionate drug dealer who becomes a father figure to the young Chiron during the character's formative years. Juan provides guidance and support to Chiron, offering a rare source of stability in an environment marked by poverty and drug-related challenges. Despite Juan's involvement in illicit activities, Ali brings depth to the character, revealing a complex and nuanced individual with genuine care for Chiron's well-being.

  1. "Green Book" (2018)

In "Green Book," Ali played the role of Dr. Don Shirley, a classical pianist, for which he won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film explores the relationship between Shirley and his driver, Tony Vallelonga, and addresses racial issues in the 1960s.

In "Green Book,” Ali portrays Dr. Don Shirley, a highly accomplished classical and jazz pianist. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the film is based on the true story of Shirley's concert tour through the segregated Southern United States in the 1960s.

Ali's performance as Dr. Shirley earned him his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He brings emotional subtlety to Dr. Shirley as the character struggles against the system as a Black artist navigating the racial tensions of the era. The dynamic between Ali's character and Viggo Mortensen's Tony Vallelonga forms the heart of the film, highlighting the unlikely friendship that develops between the two men.

  1. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" (2018)

In "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," Ali voices Uncle Aaron, the uncle of protagonist Miles Morales. The film explores the complexities of the newly superpowered Miles' relationship with his Uncle Aaron, who is involved in criminal activities as the Prowler. Uncle Aaron's moral conflict adds depth to the narrative, especially with Ali's emotionally resonating performance.

  1. "True Detective" (Season 3, 2019)

Ali starred as Detective Wayne Hays in the third season of the HBO anthology crime series "True Detective" (2014–), which explores a complex and mystifying crime involving two missing children in the Ozarks.

Ali's performance was widely acclaimed, earning him critical praise and an Emmy nod. He demonstrated his versatility by portraying Hays at different stages of his life, from a young and ambitious detective to an older man grappling with memory loss and the consequences of his unsolved case. His ability to convey the complexities of the character, from intense investigative moments to the emotional struggles of a man haunted by the past, showcased Ali's depth as an actor.

  1. “Ramy” (2020)

In season two of “Ramy” (2019–), Ali plays Sheikh Ali, a charismatic Sufi leader who takes the show's protagonist, Ramy (Ramy Youssef), under his wing. Ali and Youssef originally met because of Ali’s enjoyment of the show and the two quickly bonded over their shared experiences as Muslims in Hollywood. Before long, a character was conceived with Ali specifically in mind.

Ali's portrayal of Sheikh Ali has been praised for its intensity and magnetism, offering Ramy a chance at spiritual redemption. The storyline delves into Sheikh Ali's internal conflicts, mirroring the struggles of faith, love and responsibility. The second season of "Ramy" received guidance from Islamic scholars, including poet and activist Amir Sulaiman, who became a producer for the season. Ali's performance as “the hot sheikh” contributes to the show's exploration of Islam, love and the complexity of spiritual journeys.