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Why Colonel Jim Johnson From Hidden Figures Looks So Familiar

Directed by Theodore Melfi, "Hidden Figures" is a 2016 biographical drama that tells the true story of the trailblazing African American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, "Hidden Figures" stars actress Taraji P. Henson as the late Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematician whose real-life contributions to space exploration earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 (via NASA). 

One of the film's subplots explores Katherine Goble Johnson meeting the man who would later become her husband, military officer Jim Johnson. As told by MacTutor, Jim and Katherine married in 1959. They remained together until Jim's death in 2019 (via O.H. Smith & Son Funeral Home).  Jim and Katherine's relationship is a sweet touchstone in a movie that elaborates on themes like racism and sexism in the workplace, discrimination against women in STEM fields, and the political climate at NASA in the sixties. 

Jim Johnson is played in the film by Mahershala Ali. An award-winning actor, Ali has appeared in a variety of popular films and television shows over the course of his career, earning particular acclaim in this past decade. If you saw "Hidden Figures" and found yourself wondering where you've seen Mahershala Ali before, then you're certainly not alone.

You might recognize Mahershala Ali from his role on True Detective

Even though some "True Detective" fans gave up on Season 2, it was worth it to return for Season 3 of the anthology crime drama, if only to see Mahershala Ali's stellar performance as Detective Wayne Hays. 

The series' third season spans 25 years — from 1980 to 2015 — and Ali effortlessly evokes Hays at different stages of his life. Viewers see Hays as a haunted war veteran, a skilled investigator, a struggling husband and father stuck in a pointless job, and an old man whose waning memory prompts him to journey into his past. Mahershala Ali deserves particular praise for his ability to portray the character in his later years, where Hays has grown weary after decades of being haunted by the mystery of an unsolved case. 

Not only does Ali's appearance change as Wayne ages, but so too does his physicality. Ali's nuanced body movements, along with some incredible special effects makeup, really sell the illusion that Hays has aged significantly, adding another layer to an already dynamic performance. 

Ali joined in on The Hunger Games

Viewers might recognize Mahershala Ali as Boggs from both installments of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay." The character is instrumental in helping Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) infiltrate the Capitol. Although Boggs ultimately succumbs to injuries he sustains on their journey, Ali gives a memorable performance and the loss propels the other characters toward the film's resolution. 

Boggs is one of the characters that represents the more militant, utilitarian aspects of District 13 that Katniss finds stifling, but he ultimately gives Katniss access to information that leads the rebels to victory. Unlike President Coin, who has ulterior motives for overthrowing President Snow, Katniss has more faith in Boggs, whose careful strategizing helps them navigate the Capitol's carefully laid traps. Ali's stoic demeanor lends gravity to those tense scenes when Katniss and her team are trying to infiltrate the Capitol. The actor undoubtedly brought his A-game to help liberate Panem.

Mahershala Ali was Cottonmouth on Luke Cage

There's a pretty good chance that you remember watching Mahershala Ali as Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes in the Marvel series "Luke Cage." 

Cottonmouth is the owner of the Harlem's Paradise nightclub, as well as the leader of the Stokes crime family. A series of events puts Cottonmouth and the bulletproof titular superhero at odds, but it's a confrontation within Stokes' own family that leads to his undoing. Described by Ali himself as a "Godfather"-esque antagonist, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes' short-lived storyline — he dies unexpectedly halfway through the season, leaving a huge vacuum in his absence — excited the actor. "When [Netflix] approached me about Luke Cage, they gave me the arc, and for the first time, I found myself excited by a character's departure, because I felt like this was something I could give my all to for a period of time before saying 'peace' to him," Ali told Entertainment Weekly.

This wouldn't prove to be Ali's final dance with Marvel, however. Ali leant his vocal talents to the role of Aaron Davis, also known as Prowler, in the critically acclaimed animated film "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." He is also the MCU incarnation of Blade — the vampire slayer previously played by Wesley Snipes — a character whom he briefly played for the first time in the post-credit scene of "Eternals." This is only the beginning of Ali's Marvel experience, most likely, as he will soon reprise the role in a "Blade" reboot that's currently in development.

Ali gave a phenomenal performance in Moonlight

Mahershala Ali's exceptional talents have earned him numerous accolades, including two Academy Awards, an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and three Screen Actors Guild Awards (via IMDb). Ali made history in 2017 when he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performances in the film "Moonlight," making him the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar (via BBC). 

"Moonlight" is a film that follows a young Black man named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) through three different stages in his life. Ali plays a character named Juan, who is a father figure to Chiron – whose tumultuous life lacks guidance and love — in the first stage of the movie. The scene where Juan teaches Chiron to swim is one of the most touching moments in the movie. Ali did an incredible job with the character, whose presence is still felt even after he disappears from the narrative.

Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for Green Book

Ali won his second Oscar for his performance as accomplished pianist Dr. Don Shirley in the 2018 film "Green Book," making him the first Black actor to win two Academy Awards in the category of best supporting actor (via The Hollywood Reporter). "Green Book" is based on the friendship between pianist Dr. Don Shirley and Italian American bodyguard Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen). Although the two men come from vastly different worlds and start off on rocky ground, they develop a genuine friendship as they travel through the Deep South in the sixties. Ali gives a subtle, nuanced performance that really makes the audience connect with Shirley, whose refined personality initially stifles Vallelonga. Shirley and Vallelonga forge an unexpected bond, one that Ali and Mortensen evoke with charming precision.

Mahershala Ali is definitely keeping himself busy with all of these amazing projects. It seems like his impeccable range is paying off!