The Black actor converted to Islam in 2001 and has recently spoken of the discrimination he faced over his decision.
Mahershala Ali won the best supporting actor Oscar Sunday for his role as a drug-dealing mentor to an impoverished Black gay boy in the intimate independent drama “Moonlight,” becoming the first-ever Muslim to take home the award.
Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer who takes a young Black boy living in Miami under his wing.
It was the first Oscar win and nomination for Ali who was considered the frontrunner in the category after winning a slew of earlier awards for his performance. Accepting the award on stage, Ali thanked his teachers.
“One thing that they consistently told me … is that it wasn’t about you,” Ali said. “It’s not about you. It’s about these characters. You are in service to these stories and these characters.”
In “Moonlight,” Ali’s Juan teaches young Chiron to swim and encourages him to not be weighed down by his environment but rather to carve his own destiny.
Ali also appeared in another Oscar-nominated movie this year, “Hidden Figures,” in which he plays a U.S. colonel who woos Taraji P. Henson’s Black female mathematician in the 1960s.
Ali was one of a record seven actors of color nominated for Oscars this year in such films as “Hidden Figures” about African-American female math geniuses, the interracial marriage film “Loving,” and “13th,” a film tackling Black incarceration rates in modern U.S. society as well as the African-American family drama “Fences.”
The surge in Black nominations and wins comes after #OscarsSoWhite and the large public outcry in 2016 over the lack of Black nominees for the high-profile awards show over the past several years, shaming the Academy into nominating a more diverse group at least for 2017.
Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar in the history of the Academy Awards sparking celebrations from many in the Muslim community in the United States.
“#MahershalaAli wins an Oscar. Feeling so proud. #BlackAndMuslim,” Muslim-American activist and co-founder of Women’s March Linda Sarsour said in a tweet reacting to the news.
Ali was born and raised as a Catholic but later in life converted to Islam which strained his relationship with his mother for years before they mended fences.
The Oakland, California, actor is probably best known for playing former White House Chief of Staff Remy Danton in Netflix’s political drama “House of Cards,” and conniving Cottonmouth in Netflix’s Marvel superhero series “Luke Cage.”
Meanwhile, another Black actor made history Sunday as Viola Davis won the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance as a long-suffering housewife in the African-American family drama “Fences,” making her the first-ever Black actor to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony.