From “Law & Order” to “The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button,” veteran actor Mahershala Ali has appeared in a slew of blockbuster films and television shows since his professional acting debut in 2001. Now moviegoers are racing to their local theaters to see him in the new Civil War epic Free State of Jones.
The highly anticipated film chronicles the life of Mississippi farmer Newt Knight who leads a rebellion against the Confederacy alongside enslaved Blacks and fellow farmers. Opposite Oscar-nominated actor Matthew McConaughey, Ali plays Moses Washington, a slave fleeing the plantation owner who welded an iron collar around his neck, USA Today reports. Together, Knight (McConaughey) and Washington (Ali) spearhead an uprising against the slave-dependent South.
Ali recently sat down with Complex Magazine to discuss his new film, upcoming projects, and thoughts on diversity in Hollywood. Starting off, the ‘House of Cards’ actor revealed that he’d never heard the story of Knight’s revolt until he received the movie script. His unfamiliarity with the narrative manifested into an impromptu history lesson.
“That was refreshing because anytime you pick up a script or you go see a movie about the Civil War, you always feel like you know the general story, like how it’s gonna work out with the Emancipation Proclamation being signed,” he told Complex. “Free State of Jones went beyond that. It got into how the South wasn’t as homogenous as we thought it was—or even the North for that matter, where we like to assume everyone wanted to free the slaves and they were all abolitionists.”
Ali went on to discuss the parallels between present day society and the Civil war setting of Free State of Jones, pointing out how “extremely divisive” the political climate is right now. To get a better understanding of the Civil War era and the role he was called to play, Ali said he did a perilous amount of research and studying.
“…I found out that there were tens of thousands of African Americans that were lynched, I think in 1870, for just attempting to register to vote,: he explained. “Just for trying to go in and have a voice. I just feel like I have so much access and liberty—[but] yeah, I could still get pulled over tomorrow for just Driving While Black.”
When asked about the connection between his character Moses, who evolves into a political activist, and modern day social movements, Ali said he felt “truly inspired” by activists like Black Lives Matter who are mobilizing to address social justice issues. He’s also impressed with the younger generation for being the “driving force behind a certain degree of consciousness.”
As no Black actors were nominated for an award at this year’s Oscar’s, Ali provided his own commentary on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the issue of diversity in Hollywood. The actor is set to star in new Marvel Netflix series “Luke Cage,” alongside other prominent Black actors and says he’s excited to see more actors of color in comic book and fantasy films.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t exist in these alternate universes and in the future and what not, especially when you have all these epic fantasy tales and nobody of color in there,” he explained. “It’s exciting that in those worlds, whether it’s the heroes and villains in the superhero world, or the fantasy or the magic realism films and what not, there are openings for people of color to be present in that—and not just be in it, but to have leading parts. That’s when you get true equality.”
Ali goes on to say that African-American leads in feature films should become so commonplace that no one is surprised when it happens.
According to Complex, Ali will reprise his role as scheming lobbyist Remy Danton in the fourth season of ‘House of Cards.’ His new Netflix series “Luke Cage” is set to premiere Sept. 30, 2016.