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Believe it or not, Mahershala is a nickname. His given name is Mahershalalhashbaz, which also, believe it or not, is not a Muslim name but a Hebrew one. It is the longest name in the Old Testament, belonging to the second prophetic son of Isaiah, and it means “Hurry to the spoils!” or, in other words, “Look at all this good shit here!”

It also means that after 9/11, Ali found himself on a terrorist watch list. “They would be like, ‘Yeah, your name matches the name of a terrorist,’ ” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was like, ‘What terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and an Arabic last name? Who’s that guy?’ ”

He converted to Islam in 1999, after attending a mosque with his future wife. His faith, he says, has helped him become a better actor: “It benefits me from the standpoint of really creating empathy for these characters that I try to embody, other human beings with issues as deep and personal as my own. Because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress.” The daily practice of the religion, he says, “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.”

Ali and I are talking in a bar in downtown L.A. that is attached to a bowling alley. The conversation flows more easily here than it did in the café in Santa Monica. More interruptions and tangents. He has been house-hunting but is not happy with the prospects. The market is rough, even for an Oscar winner.

I ask him if he’s any good at bowling. “Oh, I’m average,” he tells me. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I mean, I might luck out and roll three strikes and then follow it up with a gutter ball.”

Eventually, we get up and claim a lane. He starts out shaky, but somewhere around the fourth frame, everything changes. His level of focus increases, almost imperceptibly. Before his next attempt, he pauses, centers himself. In this focused posture, he cuts a striking figure. It’s as if the alley becomes quiet. Then he rolls. Straight down the middle. Strike one.

We celebrate with a handshake slash bro hug. He goes again. Another strike. Unbelievable. Then, as you may by now have guessed, he does it again. Three strikes in a row. And then his very next attempt is a gutter ball to the left. “See? Just like I told you.”

It is mid-afternoon, and the music is loud even though we are the only people there. His voice, however, cuts easily through the noise. We start talking about politics, which spins out into a wider discussion of what it means to be an American.

“I think African-Americans have a very convoluted relationship with patriotism,” he says. “The fact is, we essentially were the abused child. We still love the parent, but you can’t overlook the fact that we have a very convoluted relationship with the parent. I absolutely love this country, but like so many people have some real questions and concerns about how things have gone down over the years and where we’re at. And that’s from a place of love, because I want the country to be what it says it is on paper.”

In the background, Anthony Kiedis is singing California, rest in peace over and over. Ali doesn’t seem to notice. “I sincerely believe we have the capacity to actually make this country great,” he says. “There are enough people, there are enough believers out there, there are enough intelligent, empathetic souls out there that want good for the whole. I don’t know if it’ll happen in my lifetime, but I believe in time the pendulum will swing in the right direction.”

I found just one picture of Mahershala Ali the basketball player. It is 1992, and he is a senior on the Mt. Eden squad in Hayward. He is posed palming the ball and power-stancing, his legs slightly apart. His face is held tightly in the impenetrable and uncompromising mean mug that black boys the world over have learned to give to the camera. Never to be taken for soft. Never to be seen. I wonder how many Americans would have looked at that face and seen the face of a Shakespearean actor, an Academy Award winner, a kind and seemingly virtuous man, a man who would one day open his heart to a nation, weep openly, make a call for peace at perhaps our most troubled time? How many would have seen just another black teenager?

That image reminded me of a school photo I had once seen of my father. In it he is younger, maybe 12, but he, too, is warning the world away with that same “don’t fuck with me” look. I came across the picture when I was a teenager, and it was the first time I realized that even though my father is a man who will stay up all night discussing spirituality and history with you, the world saw him as just a black kid. Maybe it was the first time I realized the world saw me as that, too. He is 72 now, and like Ali he is a convert to Islam. We don’t talk much. When we do, it is distant and gentle. I told him that I was working on a story about the actor from Moonlight. His voice, normally restrained, seemed to break a little. “You know I’m living vicariously through you, son,” he told me.

My father once dreamed of being a writer. He studied journalism for a year at the University of Maryland when he was in his early 20s. But somewhere in there he lost his confidence. He was one of 12 children, from the North Side of Pittsburgh, surrounded in classes by kids from educated families, kids whose parents had degrees and jobs. It’s odd to think of my dad, now aged, now relaxed and confident, now deeply spiritual, ever doubting himself. But I wonder how many black journalists he had to look at in 1973. I wonder what it would have been like if he’d had a Kenneth Washington of his own, to remind him that he belonged here.

In our interviews, I notice that Ali uses the phrase “fold into yourself” a lot, the same phrase that came up in his SAG acceptance speech. It’s not until our last ten minutes together that I ask him about it. Standing outside in downtown Los Angeles, now exposed to the stares of people who slow down when they pass, some trying surreptitiously to take pictures, he pauses before he answers.

“I think I identify with characters who have to make themselves smaller,” he says. “Because that’s been my experience, as a large black man, to make people feel safer. Just because I always found”—he pauses again; he is exceedingly precise—“witnessing other people’s discomfort made me uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, it’s a lot of b.s., too. Sometimes you gotta be like, ‘Eff that.’ ” A white family is passing us on an escalator, and I track Ali’s eyes as he self-protectively tracks them. I realize that in all the hours we’ve spent together, no one has asked him for an autograph or a picture, but people have hovered and secretly produced phones. Waiters have stumbled over their words. He has always offered a kind smile, he has always sought to put them at ease, “pre-emptively reacting to what you think people might be thinking,” as he puts it.

In a few minutes, he will go home and relieve his wife of baby duty. On the way to my car, I think about how few people there are like him. A man who holds an Oscar and a man from whom people hide their jewelry. His daily work is to make a living by being twice as indestructible, twice as powerful, yet half as threatening as an average white man. He is a winner in a country that seems to want people like him to lose. And perhaps, as he said, that can be misused as some kind of lazy peace offering. Here is a black man whose success proves that there’s nothing wrong at all. What’s everyone whining about? Anyone can do it. You just have to be extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily hardworking, extraordinarily forgiving, extraordinarily ambitious, extraordinarily good-looking, extraordinarily well-dressed, and extraordinarily lucky. You just have to know how to make winning look a hell of a lot easier than it really is.


Ecrit par Misty 
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