Mahershala Ali Tells Oprah the Powerful Role Integrity Has Played in His Life

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Photo credit: Oprah Daily
Photo credit: Oprah Daily


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On Christmas Day, after celebrating and feasting in a home decked out for the holidays, Oprah and her family sat down to watch Swan Song, an Apple TV+ original film. At the movie’s conclusion, Oprah applauded Mahershala Ali’s work. “Whoa, was that a movie? Mahershala, we bow to you, sir!” she said.

In Swan Song, Ali plays Cameron, a man faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis—and the chance to leave his family with another version of himself, thanks to a technological innovation. But, as Cameron finds out, a clone is not always a precise stand-in, and there’s no hiding from grief.

Ahead of awards season, Oprah sat down with Ali to connect about his role in Swan Song, the importance of integrity, and their shared hero, Sidney Poitier, who died in January at the age of 94. Watch Oprah and Ali’s full conversation below.

Ali and Oprah started off by bonding over their love for Poitier’s autobiographies, This Life and The Measure of a Man (which Oprah chose as an Oprah’s Book Club Pick in 2007). The memoir came into Ali’s life at a pivotal moment. As Ali explains, when he went off to study at Saint Mary’s College of California, his grandparents—with whom he lived at the time—handed him a copy of Poitier’s autobiography.

Like Poitier, who became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964, Ali also made Oscars history. In 2017, Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award, and two years later, he became the first Black actor to win two awards in the same category.

To Oprah, Poitier and Ali have a trait in common beyond their acting ability: They both committed to living their lives with integrity. Throughout his career, Poitier declined roles he felt were demeaning. Similarly, Ali—who is a practicing Muslim—has been firm about what he will or will not film due to his religious beliefs. Ali considered turning down a part in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button due to the possible inclusion of an on-screen sex scene. On Common’s podcast Mind Power Mixtape, Ali explained he was “trying to hold a space of respect for [his] religion.”

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

Speaking to Oprah, Ali explained the major role integrity plays in his life and career. “I connect to integrity as a truth, as a way of being in the world, as something to hold dear. As a cornerstone. And without it, I don’t quite know who I am. In Buddhism, they say, ‘Come back to center.’ I think ‘coming back to center’ is making sure you’re connected to your integrity and how that, in some ways, defines who you are out in the world,” Ali said. "The further you get away from it, you get lost,” he explained. “Integrity is coming back to who you are at your core—and who you are at your core is divine.”

“I connect to integrity as a truth, as a way of being in the world, as something to hold dear.”

Ali looks to role models like Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Muhammed Ali, and Oprah to inform his sense of integrity, describing them as “people who have a sense of what is right and wrong.” To Ali, they show “how important it is to be working to be aligned with what is good and what is generous and what is light and positive and true.”

He added, “No matter what else is going on in the world, there’s a sense that I feel tethered to my family, to my people, our people. And a responsibility in walking in Poitier’s shoes, or Denzel Washington’s shoes. All these people that have contributed to our culture and made the world a better place.”

Oprah, nodding in agreement, had only one thing to say in response: “Beautiful answer. That’s exactly what I was looking for.”

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