Mahershala Ali and the Limits of Celebrity Activism

This article was made possible in part through a media partnership with Sacred Writes: Public Scholarship on Religion

By Kristian Petersen

On February 11, 2020, the HBO documentary “We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest” premiered at Oakland’s historic Fox Theater. The film showcases the annual public speaking competition where elementary to high school students recite poetry and speeches. We Are the Dream was brought to screen by Know Wonder, a new production company formed as a creative partnership between actor Mahershala Ali and Amatus Sami Karim, a media creative and also Ali’s wife. An Oakland native, Mahershala Ali became famous on screen, most notably for his roles in “House of Cards” (2013––2016), “Moonlight” (2016), “Luke Cage” (2016), “True Detective” (2019), and “Ramy” (2020). While Ali is best known in front of the camera, his behind-the-scenes role in supporting We Are the Dream is part of how he uses his stardom in the service of activism, focusing on issues of social justice, youth education and amplifying unheard voices.

The diversity of Mahershala Ali’s activist efforts provides an opportunity to consider the boundaries of contemporary activism and the role of Black Muslim celebrity activists specifically. Fame is a social position that both enables and confines Black Muslim celebrities; it simultaneously opens up opportunities that others do not have access to and raises the stakes for the possible social consequences of their actions. This predicament sparks questions about the relationship between activism and fame. How should we understand activism in this pivotal moment? What roles should celebrities occupy? Are there unique difficulties for Black Muslims? Taking Ali as an example of a celebrity activist, we can see the challenges and achievements that fame poses for Black Muslims.

Mahershala Ali as an Activist

Ali’s efforts for social change are especially attuned to the intersection of race, religious identity and personal development. These shape both who the targets of his work are and his strategies to effect change in local community settings and in mediated global contexts. For example, Know Wonder’s production of We Are the Dream reflects Ali’s general focus on youth education and in supporting the community. On other occasions, Ali has vocally advocated to improve the compensation and conditions for Oakland teachers. As a producer, Ali can leverage his unique social capital as a movie star to raise voices that don’t have as wide an audience. His behind-the-scenes efforts are also shown through his support for scholarship programs for students. For instance, Ali used his fame appealing to donors to fund the “Moonlight Scholarship” at his alma mater, Saint Mary’s College of California, which supports students of color in the school’s High Potential program. By supporting education initiatives through both his name and his funding, Ali supports under-privileged students and highlights their value to broad audiences.

Ali and Amatus Sami Karim at The 68th Emmys “144721_HI3_9493” by Disney | ABC Television Group is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

“Responsibility makes a man. It’s a choice. It rests in your hands. So, do you use the power in your hands to destroy…or to care?”

Mahershala Ali

Ali has also centered the role of religion in his activism. In his local community of Los Angeles, he participates in interfaith activities, such as the Mayor’s Day of Religious Pluralism, and helps serve the Skid Row neighborhood’s homeless population as part of the L.A. Muslim-led community service event, Humanitarian Day. On other occasions, Ali speaks out against individual and institutional anti-Muslim racism. During the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, which was held just 2 days after the Executive Order for the so-called “Muslim Ban,” Ali offered a heartfelt address that implicitly critiqued Donald Trump’s xenophobic policies. In his speech, Ali empathetically drew together his personal experience as a Muslim with that of other persecuted communities, and reflected on the effects oppression has on individuals. The message was clear: we can personally overcome hatred and violence, but we must also resist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim state policies. And in 2019, Ali participated in a bipartisan congressional caucus discussion on religious tolerance and human rights that focused on the persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan and the Uyghur Muslim community in the People’s Republic China. These two minority Muslim communities are often ignored in public conversations, and Ali was able to draw attention to them and raise awareness about their persecution abroad. It is important to note that as an Ahmadi Muslim, Ali’s activism for his community is both a unique possibility for him but also one that opens him up to specific anti-Ahmadi discrimination. As Ali gains global recognition, often framed as a “Muslim movie star,” some contest his Muslim identity simply because he identifies as an Ahmadi Muslim. This primarily comes from some Pakistani Muslims where Ahmadiyya is legally recognized as separate from Islam. But within his U.S. context, most viewers are unaware of Ali’s Ahmadi background, and overlook his efforts to fight for the Ahmadiyya community.

Definitions of activism solely focused on grassroots organizing or on-the-ground protest might not recognize the constellation of Ali’s undertakings but more generous understandings place Ali along the same paths of well-known Black Muslim activists. Similar social awareness has prompted other Black Muslim celebrities to address social injustice in their own contexts. Like Ali, Black Muslim athletes, musicians, comedians and actors have also leveraged their stardom to speak and act against systems of racism and oppression. For many, Muhammad Ali is most famous for his political activism rather than his boxing career, including his infamous vocal stance on the Vietnam War and the consequences to his career that followed his refusal to enter the Army. Muhammad Ali continued his fight against discrimination long after his boxing career ended, including strongly critiquing anti-Muslim racism after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s, former Los Angeles Laker and NBA Hall of Famer, lifelong efforts of mentorship and public critique were recognized by Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. In addition, U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad founded Athletes for Impact an organization that helps others in sports harness their vast audience platforms to transform their community. Models Halima Aden and Iman have both focused their activist efforts on children’s needs through philanthropic donations and becoming the face of organizations like Save the Children and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Artists like Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def), and Dave Chappelle have used music and comedy as forms of expression that enable raising awareness of ultimate social concerns as well as the condemnation of imperialist, racist, and anti-Muslim actions and policies. Mahershala Ali is positioned within this ongoing legacy and helps us sharpen our expectations of celebrity activists.

The Limits of Celebrity Activism

Celebrity activism is largely understood as solely and simply a star using their social media presence to speak out about an issue. As a result, these efforts are often seen as trivial because they are frequently the beginning and end of a celebrity’s activism; making this type of public engagement simply virtue signaling for fans. For example, in the wake of continued police brutality against Black Americans, and especially widespread demonstrations condemning the tragic murder of George Floyd, celebrities are voicing their support for #BlackLivesMatter. Some of these folks are on the ground while others have donated money to organizations. But most of what celebrities have been able to do is “Hashtag activism,” the use of social media to mobilize disparate communities to demand justice. While there are clear limitations, social media strategy activism can have real world effects because celebrities help legitimize hashtags or events by their support and amplification of causes. Stars can leverage their celebrity platform to influence and encourage their fanbase to participate in just action.

In some contexts, being both celebrity and activist may work against each other, and the intersection between the two identities can be understood as contradictory. Basketball players like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf are expected to “shut up and dribble,” Muhammad Ali lost his title for opposing the Vietnam war, and football players like Hamza Abdullah are conditioned by corporations and fans to stay silent and not publically critique their professional conditions. These expectations are racialized in ways that make them especially true for Black athletes. There is also a popular opinion that movie stars are “…in no position to lecture the public about anything” and the cliché of using award speeches as a moment of political protest often receives more criticism than support. Further, the professional consequences of being perceived as an activist could harm an artist in terms of future opportunities in mainstream productions or commercial partnerships, as well as audience reception, such as organized boycotts or negative reviews.

Ali must reckon with these considerations when constructing his public persona. For example, in January 2020, Ali shared a photo on Instagram from his visit to conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas’s exhibition, “An All Colored Cast,” in Los Angeles. The installation included the General Lee car from the 1970s television show Dukes of Hazzard, infamous for its Confederate flag roof, crashed into the ground and standing upright. In his work, Thomas critiques racial inequality by signifying on iconic imagery of American popular media. Accordingly, Ali’s Instagram post could suggest that he held the same appraisal of American racism as Thomas. Although most of his followers agreed with the visual denunciation of racist systems, a few were upset with the implication of the artwork – “The flag may have been on the car but I can’t recall ever an ounce of racism from any characters in the show. They were just good ol boys.” After a series of conflicting comments about the meaning and significance of the symbol, Ali eventually removed the image from his Gram. Incidents such as this require us to consider the outcomes of activism that are visible and affective, but temporary and impermanent. Does public debate over contested signifiers result in ineffective social action? Does highlighting contentious subjects undermine efforts towards more universally accepted public aims? Perhaps Ali’s removal of the Instagram post points to his own answer to these questions: fostering dissension is unproductive and publicizing topics of discord are not worth losing support for his other efforts of social change that are more universally accepted.

Another challenge to the legitimacy of celebrity activism is the convergence of fashion, capitalism and equitable values. Ali is well-known for his love of fashion and is frequently dubbed one of the best dressed men in Hollywood. His style often reflects his roots in Black Muslim traditions, probably most iconically during the 2019 Oscars in which he won Best Supporting Actor award. His sharp black suit and refashioned Karakul cap echoed both Malcolm X and early fashion norms pictured in Black Muslim and American Ahmadi communities in the mid-twentieth century. Recently, Ali partnered with the men’s high-end brand, Ermenegildo Zegna, for an ad campaign called #WHATMAKESAMAN in collaboration with Italian based humanitarian organization Cesvi.

The ideals of the ad campaign, released in the fall of 2019, are presented in about ten 15–30 second videos of Ali styling various fashion, including tailored suits, leather shoes, and high end casual wear, with his own voice over answering questions about “What does it mean to be a man today?” Ali’s collection of promotions reimagines manhood infused with purpose, hope, conscience, intention, love, care, risk and failure. Ali’s Zegna is exemplified in his promo video, “Responsibility makes a man,” where he tells the viewer, “It’s a choice. It rests in your hands. So, do you use the power in your hands to destroy…or to care?” The campaign seeks to challenge rigid notions of masculinity and questions the elements that constitute the contemporary man. Likewise, Ali’s regular use of high fashion contests gendered stereotypes of Black masculinity, which regularly mark Black men as violent and hypersexual. Through menswear styles rooted in Black, Black Muslim and Black Ahmadi Muslim sartorial traditions, Ali is able to narrate an alternative image of Blackness to broad audiences. The partnership links Ali to a value conscious corporation and enables him to put forward his vision of a morally upright manhood that can be used as a model by others. In this way, the ad campaign aligns with Ali’s other activist efforts and the values he upholds for his celebrity persona.

However, for some people, activism is seen as being inherently anti-capitalist because oppression and exploitation of people are built into the fabric of capitalistic systems where financial profit is the central goal. Similarly, divestment and boycott movements, such as the recent call by Black Hollywood artists and executives to divest from police or support for the Palestinian Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement, rely on the public political power of money to enact social change. Many fashion brands want to conceal the unfair labor practices they rely on in order to profit. Some companies attempt to offset capitalist exploitation of labor through philanthropic campaigns that “give back” so socially conscientious consumers can continue to acquire products without any moral culpability. However, the inequity engrained in capitalist enterprises makes racialized laborers susceptible to unfair economic coercion in commercial systems. While Zegna does not follow exploitative labor practices, some of Ali’s more revolutionary allies may see the corporate partnership as grounds to undermine his advocacy for liberatory social change because it is rooted in inherently unfair industry structures. For these types of critics, when fashion brands market products through a compassionate consumerism, the sets of values underpinning their consumption become commodities themselves. Ultimately, corporations cannot enact transformative social change, or eliminate inequality through consumerism, because the capitalist organization of labor is rooted in the subordination of workers. In the end, it seems Ali disagrees with this perspective and wants to encourage consumer behaviors through his promotion of ethical and reflective masculinity, that is established in personal development and communal duty. Other activists have followed similar paths, such as Colin Kaepernick, partnering with corporations in order to bring their activist message to the broadest audience possible. For some Black Muslim activists today, that benefit of exposure may not always outweigh the consequences of walking away from supporters committed to enacting radical change.

Black Muslim Celebrity Activist

Mahershala Ali’s trajectory is rich and evolving. Through him, and his actions, we can think about the role of Black Muslim celebrity activists in our contemporary moment. Ali’s rising prominence prompts us to consider how each of Ali’s various social identities (Black + Muslim + celebrity + activist) informs his public presence. How does being Black and Muslim engender one’s values and public concerns? What does it mean to be a celebrity activist? We have seen that Ali combines various practices, such as support for education, fostering dialogue and public service, to try to actualize his social ideals. The goal of community advancement is rooted within an ethical social framework that permeates both Ali’s experience as a Black American and as an Ahmadi Muslim. His biography points to the fact that Ali has been confronted with the demands of a “politics of respectability” and being a “model minority” in the United States to access opportunities. And, his efforts embody high moral standards embedded in a Prophetic example of excellence. Ali says, “because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress.” Practice, “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.” Being a Black Muslim in America is tethered to both rich traditions of African American social history and Islamic principles of social justice. For Ali, it appears that this requires a personal ethic grounded in these traditions and aimed at enhancing one’s community, despite the perpetual social forces working against that population.

The 89th Oscars. “146030_5297” by Walt Disney Television is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Taking Ali as an example of a celebrity activist, we can see the challenges and achievements that fame poses for Black Muslims.

This background is likely why Ali is not your typical celebrity. His public persona reflects these foundations and is established through what one might consider a benevolent demeanor that promotes progress rather than self-aggrandizement. This modest presentation defies the typical characteristics of celebrities. Ali “walks the walk” by reflecting his values in action. The curation of causes, events, brands or cultural projects mean we may in fact think of Ali as what some have termed the “artivist.” M. K. Asante Jr. explains that the artivist is someone who “…uses [their] artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any [artistic] medium necessary. The artivist merges commitment to freedom and justice with the pen, the lens, the brush, the voice, the body, and the imagination. The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation.” Ali’s choice of causes to support and activities to pursue align with his social ideals and professional craft. His celebrity status enables him to leverage his privilege to address public concerns about social injustice and reach new audiences. Through his fame, his public efforts are amplified. Celebrity and activism combine to magnify the scope and effects of Ali’s efforts, which are grounded in social values formed through his experience as a Black Muslim.

An Activism for Our Moment

The 89th Oscars. “146028_0417” by Walt Disney Television is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Ali’s efforts to uplift Black Americans recognizes that, as Dr. Kayla Wheeler puts it, “race is a master category in the United States—it plays a fundamental role in shaping history, culture, and economics.” Additionally, Dr. Youssef Carter notes, “not only must Black Muslims navigate anti-Black discourses and practices; they also contend with anti-Muslim discourses and practices (Islamophobia).” Consequently, we can see that the thread that strings together Ali’s efforts to dismantle systems of racism and oppression lies at the intersection of race and religion. Defining activism through Mahershala Ali establishes a template built on personal social awareness, communal political engagement, local grounded action and universal advocacy. It’s an activism rooted in personal ethical development, public modesty that is antithetical to his celebrity status, and striving for a common good. Ali tells us, “I sincerely believe we have the capacity to actually make this country great. 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.” The privileges of celebrity empowers stars to critique, which Ali has put to work for affecting social change in the public sphere. Fame broadens Ali’s reach to larger audiences by enabling him to raise awareness of pressing issues, curate and signal principled positions, influence stakeholders in public debates, support charitable programs, coerce corporate or political entities towards socially responsible policies, garner commitments from policymakers and inspire others to tear down injustice. In this way, faith and activism go hand in hand, and Black Muslim celebrities can use stardom to serve their efforts. This would put them in step with prominent forerunners, such as Malcolm X, whose “identity as Muslim and his work for Black people’s human rights were not separate, but rather part of what made a whole human being, the Malcolm we love to claim,” as Zaheer Ali recalls. Mahershala Ali embodies this fusion of personal convictions, communal responsibility and societal progress while employing various modes of contemporary activism that fame affords him. Altogether, Ali models the revolutionary spirit of his activist foreparents, and fashions an activism for our moment.

Featured Image: The 89th Oscars. “146028_0417” by Walt Disney Television is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress,” (The practice) “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.

Mahershala Ali

Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. He is the author of Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press in 2017). He is editor of the forthcoming volumes, Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology (ILEX Foundation & Harvard University Press) and New Approaches to Islam in Film (Routledge). Currently he is working on a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims. He is host of the New Books in Religion and New Books in Islamic Studies podcasts.

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