Biography of Mahershala Ali 2024

Mahershala Ali was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore on February 16, 1974 in Oakland, California. His mother, Willicia, was an ordained minister and his father, Phillip Gilmore, was an actor who appeared in Broadway musicals.

Ali grew up in Hayward, California in a family devoted to the arts. Along with acting, Ali pursued music and played the piano, drums, and trumpet as a child. He later credited his interest in music and acting to his maternal grandmother, who exposed him to films and plays from a young age.

Full Name Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore
Date of Birth February 16, 1974
Birthplace Oakland, California
Parents Willicia and Phillip Gilmore

As a teenager, Ali converted to Islam. He later explained that the name Ali means “noble, exalted one” and resonated with him more than his birth name.

Early Acting Career

After graduating from St. Mary’s College of California with a degree in mass communication, Ali began pursuing acting professionally in the San Francisco Bay Area. He landed his first significant role was in the 2001 film Crossing the Bridge as Dr. William T. O’Reilly.

Over the next few years, he continued performing in films and made appearances on television shows such as NYPD Blue, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and The 4400. His breakthrough came in 2008 when he earned the role of Richard Tyler on the science fiction series The 4400.

Oscar Win for Moonlight

In 2016, Ali received critical praise for his supporting performance in the coming-of-age drama Moonlight. His nuanced portrayal of a drug dealer who serves as a surrogate father to a young boy earned him dozens of Best Supporting Actor awards, including the Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award. The film also took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Following his success with Moonlight, Ali saw his career reach new heights. He was cast in a variety of high-profile films, most notably as the villain Cottonmouth in the Marvel/Netflix series Luke Cage (2016), Colonel Boggs in the war film Mudbound (2017), and Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book (2018).

Key Movie Roles

Moonlight (2016) Won Oscar for Best Supporting Actor
Luke Cage (2016) Played villain Cottonmouth
Mudbound (2017) Played Colonel Boggs
Green Book (2018) Played Dr. Don Shirley

For which film did Mahershala Ali win an Oscar?

Mahershala Ali won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his acclaimed performance in the 2016 coming-of-age drama “Moonlight.” His nuanced portrayal of a Miami drug dealer who serves as a surrogate father to a young boy earned him dozens of acting awards and universal critical praise.

Current Work and Upcoming Projects

Following his Oscar win, Ali became highly sought-after in Hollywood. He co-starred in the third season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective in 2019 before taking on the title role in the third season of the Hulu series Ramy.

Ali is set to star as fictional boxing legend Jack Johnson in an upcoming HBO series. He has also been cast to play the iconic villain Blade in an upcoming Marvel film reboot. Other upcoming projects include a sci-fi film called Sovereign and an Al Capone biopic called Fonzo.

Outside of acting, Ali narrated the documentary The Secret Life of Muslims and serves as an executive producer for HBO’s Native Son, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel. He also continues to perform as a DJ and rapper under the name Prince Ali.

With major roles still upcoming and his star on the rise after back-to-back Oscar nominations, Mahershala Ali has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men.

Personal Life

Mahershala Ali lives with his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, an accomplished musician and artist who performs under the stage name Professor A.M.E. The couple met in New York City while Ali was filming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

They married in 2013 and had their first child, a daughter named Bari Najma, in February 2017. In 2019, they welcomed their second child, a son.

Ali practices the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam and has been outspoken about the discrimination its followers face. He takes his family on the annual American Muslim pilgrimage to Peace Village in Canada and volunteers at the Christian Ministry Hope Gardens Family Center in his hometown of Hayward

Acting Philosophy and Charitable Causes

Known for his ability to capture a character’s subtle complexities, Ali approaches acting without necessarily relying on his own experiences. He believes portraying someone else’s emotions requires focusing less on oneself and more on understanding the character’s motivations.

Ali trains with acting coach Stephen Rosenfield and is a strong advocate of his technique. “The job is to become someone else,” he has said. “Being in touch with yourself will stop you from fully sliding into someone else’s skin.”

The actor dedicates time to raising awareness about unjust convictions and volunteers with the Innocence Project, a non-profit advocating for prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted. He is also involved with the anti-incarceration organization #cut50, Syrian refugee relief, and other humanitarian causes.


In summary, Mahershala Ali has risen from modest beginnings to become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed and sought-after actors. After early roles in film and television, his nuanced performance in 2016’s Moonlight proved to be his career-defining role thus far. The depth and complexity he brings to every character has become his signature in roles like True Detective, Green Book and upcoming projects.

Outside his profession, Ali prioritizes family life with his wife and children. He also uses his platform to champion social justice initiatives like criminal justice reform and immigration rights. Committed to total immersion into each acting role, Mahershala Ali delivers authentic emotional portrayals rooted in the human experience. With two Academy Awards already amassed at just 45 years old, Ali’s dedication to his craft promises even more powerful performances in the years to come.


Why did Mahershala Ali convert to Islam?

Ali converted to Islam in the 1990s, explaining that the name Ali means “noble, exalted one” which resonated with him more than his birth name. His conversion also reflected his spiritual journey and personal beliefs at the time.

What was Mahershala Ali’s first major film role?

His first breakthrough film role was in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. However, his first starring role came in 2016’s Moonlight, for which he won several Best Supporting Actor awards, including the Oscar.

Is Mahershala Ali related to Muhammad Ali?

No, Mahershala Ali is not related to the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. He chose the Islamic name Ali after his conversion to Islam based on his admiration of what the name symbolizes.

What will Mahershala Ali star in next?

Some of Ali’s upcoming projects include starring as Jack Johnson in an HBO series, playing Blade in a Marvel reboot, and lead roles in the sci-fi movie Sovereign and an Al Capone biopic called Fonzo. He will also appear in the third season of Hulu’s Ramy.

What causes does Mahershala Ali support?

Outside of acting, Ali dedicates time to several social justice causes including the Innocence Project, #cut50, refugee relief, and serving his local community. Causes closest to him relate to criminal justice reform, immigration, and empowering marginalized groups.