Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. To commemorate the complex, beautiful, larger-than-life hero, champion, and icon, three of our writers attempt to understand him by watching and discussing three films about his life.
Facing Ali (Pete McCormack, 2009) Defines Muhammad Ali Through Enemies and America
David Shreve, Jr.
Facing Ali opens with the trademark declaration from the legendary pugilist: “Rumble, young man, rumble.”
Here, in the first moments of this documentary where Ali’s battlecry opens into a short collection of portraits of his aged former opponents, the sentence feels more broadly functional, not about himself or one particular target, but about all of these former fighters. The words mark not so much a nostalgic celebration of an indisputably great athlete, but the baseline truth, we will find, that informed all of their younger lives. It might as well be the opening epigraph to each of their separate biographies. Facing Ali is a movie about a bunch of fighters, each eventually defined by their encounter with the fighter.
One by one, some of Ali’s toughest opponents, including Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman, offer their recollection of their bouts with Ali and the then current events in America that contextualized the respective matches. This is a tough week to discuss Facing Ali because the film’s aesthetic, constructed by the singular perspective of these short-term witnesses to his life, investigates every phase of the boxer’s career in subjective present tense capsules. When Muhammad Ali passed away this weekend at the age of 74, our nation mourned the loss of a hero in terms that were exclusively heroic, a photoshopped version of history with the fighter’s greatness and cultural triumphs ever-present and unanimously pre-supposed in each chapter. Perhaps that’s the decent way to mourn any hero, by gathering collectively at the foot of a polished marble statue and building the mythology backward. It certainly feels most fair, but that doesn’t make it honest.
A hero who goes into his fights with 100% of the world’s support is no hero at all. He is an entertainer. Ali’s heroism, though, was built from warrior-like battles and divisive contests. He was contentious, abrasive, controversial, if necessarily so. Having these men—men who were, at the time of their matchups, expected by their sport to find a way to defeat, dislike, and possibly hate Ali—serve as the narrative voices of Ali’s career works as a sharp reminder of how far Ali was from being universally loved. Not only are we reminded through discussion of the in-ring fights that Ali was a physically fierce and psychologically bullying enough competitor to win most of his matches against opponents who often seemed to hold some distinct important vantage over him (be it strength or, in his older years, speed), we are also reminded of how scarce were his allies in his tougher social battles.
Facing Ali rightfully starts with a racial conversation. White America’s discomfort with Ali’s revolutionary and unrelenting public-facing presentation of his blackness almost has to be the canvas upon which we draw any portrait of the fighter. This is the toxic side of a cultural intersection that lead much of America to interpret Ali’s self-assurance as arrogance, to fear his commitment to his Muslim faith as an attack upon their more prominent Judeo-Christian values, and to accuse the fighter of being a “draft dodger” when he verifiably dodged nothing, when he, in fact, stood his ground and went toe-to-toe with the Supreme Court in a battle that forced the government to admit how wrong they were in questioning the sincerity of his conscientious objection to being drafted. He gave up what might have been the three best years of his professional career to fight that fight and put the Vietnam conflict into better perspective than any politician of the era. He dodged nothing but unfair cultural evaluation. But, perhaps Facing Ali‘s most striking revelation is that of the flimsiness of the support systems offered by his racial and professional peers. Even though several of the fighters grew up in the perhaps harsher regions of the pre-Civil Rights American South (Joe Frazier, in discussing his time in the segregated school system, points out that his childhood offered “…nothing for me to do except walk straight. Walk right.”), they are still quick to cast doubt toward some of Ali’s chosen social battles. Leon Spinks, in a contemporary interview, even has a hearty and dismissive laugh at the cultural trend that surrounded Ali’s decision to change his name. It’s as if they have fought so hard in the ring, they have failed to see the better world created by Ali’s out-of-ring fights, the better world Ali helped build to improve the world in which fighting was their only escape.
The conclusive note of Facing Ali is a bit forced and generic. The director smothers the film’s thematic value by capturing the opponents collectively insisting that they can tell the story of a man who, because of his medical condition, can no longer tell his own. It is not only heavy-handed, but wrong and unnecessary. Ali’s story needs no charitable or supportive telling. His story takes authorial presence within the telling of their stories, within any story of America concerned with the second half of the 20th Century. We learn that fights these men had against Ali launched their stardom, defined their careers, and at least in one case, saved a life. Their personal histories with the greatest American athlete were mean, sometimes hateful, and always violent. “He could take a punch,” Jack Cooper says early on, attempting like so many opponents to understand Ali by how hard they fought against him and how much damage they laid upon him. But somehow, in the long term, Ali always ended up being something of a savior to his opponents. It could be said that the best way to celebrate and protect his legacy is to accept that Muhammad Ali’s history with America can be described in much the same manner.
When We Were Kings (Lean Gast, 1996) Defines Muhammad Ali Through Athletic Feat and Africa
When the final fight—the Rumble in the Jungle—begins, it only takes a few seconds of watching Ali fight before you realise that all that talk, all that boasting, all that cockiness, is for a reason.
Ali could fight. In Zaire, he’s quick, strong, smart, and he knows it.
When We Were Kings is all about the time Don King offered five million dollars to George Foreman to fight Muhammad Ali, and five million dollars to Ali to fight Foreman, and then, once he had their signatures, he went looking for someone who could give him ten million dollars for his fighters. He found that someone in blood-soaked dictator, Mobuto Seso Seko, who thought that having these two fighters and the world’s media in his country would be fantastic PR for his regime.
When We Were Kings is also about Africa and Africa as concept to black people in America. Spike Lee comments that being from Africa in the ’70s was not something people aspired to. He says that if you told a black man he was from Africa, you had better be ready to fight him. Ali loves Africa and Africa returns the love. There is an interesting idea running through the movie that the people of Zaire loved Ali because he was a true African, whereas George Foreman was an American. Why did they think this? Because he was an activist, because he was unapologetically black, because when the time came for him to put his morals before his money, fame, and success he stood his ground and wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam. He absorbed the hatred that America gave him, and the threat of jail time and the fines and loss of his ability to do what he loved, in order to do what he believed was right.
When We Were Kings was released in 1996, long after Ali had retired and been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The two main commentators in the movie are writers, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, and they talk about him in the past tense, even though Ali would live for another twenty years. The Ali they’re talking about in the past tense, is the Legend Ali. The Ali who’s press conferences were like stand up acts, the Ali who always had something to say, who seduced the people around him with quick words and charm and confidence. To see Ali talk to the cameras in Zaire, you can see why people love him so much. He will always be charisma made sentient. He’s cool as the other side of the pillow. He’s the coolest guy in this movie by far (and James Brown is in this movie).
The final fight, which takes up fifteen minutes near the end of the movie is unbelievable. It’s fitting to watch in within the context of a movie because it seems too good to be true. It’s like something Stallone might have written for a Rocky sequel if it had not already happened. The older fighter facing a younger, stronger, hungrier man somehow manages to win. And he gets to his victory by first trying to fight him dead on, which works for a bit but clearly isn’t going to win the long fight, and then and then by trying to rope a dope him, forcing him to pummel with all of his might until he’s tired out. It’s hard to watch the hits Ali takes to his ribs and his kidneys, the punishment he endures. When Foreman is finished with a particularly brutal spate of punishing Ali leans in and says something to him, something like ‘I thought you could hit harder than that’ and Foreman comes back for more. Round after round of this until Foreman looks fatigued, and Ali, thirty-two years old with the speed and skill of an eighteen year old, goes to work. The fight is shown to us and also described to us by ringside viewers, Plimpton and Mailer. The scene in which Foreman is knocked down and we freeze on Plimpton and Mailer’s faces at ringside, both men’s mouths hanging open in shock is a wonderful and hilarious image.
Overall, When We Were Kings is a document to show unknowing young people when they ask why Ali was the greatest and stupid old people when they say that Ali transcended race. When We Were Kings is Ali laid bare. His race, his politics, his fears, his skills, his passions, are all there to be seen and Ali wasn’t the shrinking violet so he tells you what he thinks about his politics, his race, his skills, and his passions. And why was he the greatest? Because when he steps into the ring with Foreman, a man who should have killed him, he’s got footwork and speed like nothing else? Because when he talks to people they want to listen to what he says? Because he outthought and outfought a man who was a better fighter? No. He was the greatest because he told us he was the greatest. And then, once he had told us, he did all the things he needed to do to make us believe it.
Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) Defines Muhammad Ali Through Performance and Cinema
“The champ is here! The champ is here! The champ is here!”
Like the champion whose name it shares, Ali is imperfect and important. A work about a man who stood among the greatest Americans.
From the opening half hour of the film, Ali tosses aside traditional narrative momentum. It feeds you the appropriate information to understand who Muhammed Ali was from his childhood as Cassius Clay to his world heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston. Trading in traditional storytelling introductions prove to be a form-following-story decision. Ali himself was an unconventional man who never apologized for his convictions or methods. His story was not built on moment-to-moment iconography, it was built on monuments.
There’s a tenderness to Smith’s performance as Ali where the gravitas of the living legend are blended with the righteous fury thrust upon him. Smith’s turn is an embodiment of Muhammed Ali, realized after Smith underwent nearly a year’s worth of neurobiological therapy to get into the mindset of Ali, subsequently lived and breathed the man until owned everything from his charisma to his dialect. Smith presents him as he should be presented, as a powerhouse of emotion and entertainment. His wit was sharp and his persona was loved.
Smith and Mann also capture portions of the less mythologized chapters, some of the personal shortcomings and complex relationships in Ali’s life. In a scene leading to one of Ali’s various affairs, he contemplates how Islam has helped him in his life but also how he is unable to remain loyal to the women in his life. Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith), Belinda Boyd (Nona Gaye), and Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) enter his life when confronting his initial heavyweight title, his religion and government, and his final fight in Africa. The emotion is heavy as Ali’s unfaithful relationships show him as a lovable, loving, but imperfect man.
Michael Mann’s heavy reliance on mood to extrapolate his recurring and evolutionary aesthetics elevate the atmosphere surrounding the conflict. Ali was proud to be black in a time when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were murdered for fighting for the right to be seen as human. Ali stood tall, unashamed in his abilities, stating, “I ain’t got to be what nobody else want me to be, and I ain’t afraid to be what I want to be.”
A scene in the second half of the film shows Ali running through the streets of Zaire. Waves of adoring fans playfully join in his morning regimen, each in awe of the presence of The Champ. Ali takes a moment to look at the artist interpretations of himself on street art and the faces in the crowd. He sees the necessity of what he’s accomplished thus far and why he must always fight.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is crisp, mixing film with early use of digital cameras to capture Ali’s workout routines. One of the defining scenes of the picture revolves around Ali after the MLK assassination. Ali looks out at a city rioting, distraught at the loss of another African American fighting for equal rights of the American people. It’s a small fraction of the film but the visual involvement remains a high mark for Lubezki’s filmography.
On early viewings, it never sat right with me how the movie ended on “The Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammed Ali, especially since one of the previous scenes has Ali’s second wife rightly confront him on his financial backers, “Do you think they give a damn if you get killed?” It seemed the movie to that point understood the life of Ali, that it was about more than him being the best physical boxer in the world, that it knew what made him truly the best fighter was his steadfast devotion to the pursuit of happiness, fairness, righteousness. But Ali doesn’t fight for the people who try to control him, he fights for his right to choose.
As hard as Ali fought, the good fight for people of color still rages on.
On June 3, 2016, the same day Muhammad Ali passed away, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a commencement speech at City College of New York:
“It’s the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters two beautiful black young women head off to school waving goodbye to their father, the President of the United States… You are living, breathing proof that the American Dream endures in our time. It’s you.”
That was Muhammed Ali. That’s what he fought for. That’s why he was among the most important fighters, in and out of the ring, the world would ever know and Smith, Mann, and the entire production are able to capture the real reason we love The Champ.