The Tight Rope

Mahershala Ali on Becoming Blade, Winning Oscars, and Discovering Islam

October 1, 2020

On this episode of The Tight Rope, Oscar-award winning actor Mahershala Ali opens up powerfully to our hosts Dr. Cornel West and Professor Tricia Rose about his life, his religion, his supporting role in Green Book, and his upcoming leading role in Blade. You won’t want to miss this fascinating, honest, and spiritual conversation with Mahershala. In Office Hours, Dr. West and Tricia remember Breonna Taylor and discuss the specific and collective loss felt about the decision to not charge the cops involved with her death on this episode of The Tight Rope.


Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. A prominent democratic intellectual, social critic, and political activist, West also serves as Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. West has authored 20 books and edited 13. Most known for Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, West appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, CNN, C-Span, and Democracy Now. West has appeared in over 25 documentaries and films, including Examined Life, and is the creator of three spoken word albums including Never Forget. West brings his focus on the role of race, gender, and class in American society to The Tight Rope podcast. 


Tricia Rose

Professor Tricia Rose is Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. She also holds the Chancellor’s Professorship of Africana Studies and serves as the Associate Dean of the Faculty for Special Initiatives. A graduate of Yale (B.A.) and Brown University (Ph.D), Rose authored Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy (2003), and The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop and Why It Matters (2008). She also sits on the Boards of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Color of Change, and Black Girls Rock, Inc. Focusing on issues relating to race in America, mass media, structural inequality, popular culture, gender and sexuality and art and social justice, Rose engages widely in scholarly and popular audience settings, and now also on The Tight Rope podcast.  


Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali is an awarding-winning actor, producer, and former rapper, known for his roles in House of Cards (2016), Moonlight (2016), Luke Cage (2016), True Detective (2019), and Ramy (2020). With a diverse range and incredible skill set, Ali has won numerous accolades, including the 2019 and 2017 Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Green Book and Moonlight, respectively. In 2019, Time magazine named Ali one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. 


Insight from this episode:

  • Behind-the-scenes look at Mahershala’s journey and conversion to Islam along with his experiences with his name in Hollywood and accepting his creator’s advice. 
  • Reasons why Mahershala is so serious.
  • Honest reflections on why Mahershala said yes to his role in Green Book, how he prepared for that role, and his reflections and regrets after the fact. 
  • Discussion on Mahershala’s upcoming role in Blade and his connection to Wesley Snipes.
  • Reflections on the power of the arts to empower people and to create imaginative spaces and new realities. 


Quotes from the show:

  • “I was constantly in these environments where I was the “other.” In doing so, you become hyper-aware of your Blackness… I don’t think I ever allowed myself off the hook to necessarily relax and go, “Alright, I can kind of play around a little bit.” I always felt a certain pressure to keep certain things together.”  –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • “I’ve been very blessed in my life to have the right people at the right time filling in these spaces or at least giving me the information to fill my own voids, to be a co-creator in my own healing and my own growth.” –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • On Viola Davis and Aunjanue Ellis: “[They] got really good from turning water into wine. Those are the actors that make something out of nothing and get really good at it. So you actually give them some material, a little bit, you give them an inch, they're going to take a mile.” –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • “[Through actors, we can] expand our empathy as an audience and understand that every person is the star of their own story, and if you really get into the nooks and crannies of a life, there’s something dynamic there. I don’t care where they’re from. I don’t care what color or culture someone is from. Those actors consistently make the ordinary extraordinary.” –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • On changing his name: “I don’t want two more syllables to impact the type of career I have. I know who I am. I’d been fighting through this space for so long, feeling like I’m coming off the bench to come and put up shots, but I get pulled off no matter how well I play. For me, I felt like I had permission... Things popped into alignment, when I was clear about what it is I was doing, how I saw myself, what I was okay with, and also giving an audience an opportunity to learn your name.” –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • “I’ve never not had-- up until [Green Book]-- not had to negotiate the things that I’m okay with or the things I gotta try to limit that aspect of it because that is your experience as a Black person in this industry, or probably any industry.” –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • “I’m two decades into a career and haven’t been a lead yet. So you’re constantly looking at what can I do with this part? Because I have more to say, and I want to see, as a Black man, I always want to be a three-dimensional character. I actually want to not always be supporting someone else’s story and be leading the way. But you’re also looking at the crumbtrail you’ve had to follow to get to that point.” –Mahershala Ali The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • On Breonna Taylor: “It’s not just that her black life matters. Her black life is profoundly precious and priceless.” –Dr. Cornel West The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • “It’s like a ritual that’s being played out over and over again, where extensive discretion is being given to the police to enact what is state-sponsored violence and disregard of Black human beings over and over and over again. And then the use of a very narrow interpretation of the law, and the use of extra discretionary contexts for analysis, and the normalization of the idea of Black people as criminals work all together to continue to reproduce this kind of outcome. So it’s both about Breonna and her family and that specific location, and it’s about a collective experience.” –Tricia Rose The Tight Rope Episode #19
  • On outrage to shooting of cops: “We want consistency on that tight rope.” –Dr. Cornel West The Tight Rope Episode #19


Stay Connected:

Cornel West


Twitter: @CornelWest

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Instagram: @BrotherCornelWest 

Linktree: Cornel West 


Tricia Rose


LinkedIn: Tricia Rose

Twitter: @ProfTriciaRose

Facebook: Tricia Rose

Instagram: @ProfTriciaRose

Youtube: Professor Tricia Rose 


Marhershala Ali

Instagram: @MahershalaAli


The Tight Rope


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This episode was produced and managed by Spkerbox Media in collaboration with Podcast Laundry

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