How Muhammad Ali became a legend


Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann
With Will Smith, Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx and Mario Van Peebles
Screening at major cinemas


Michael Mann's Ali is a welcome departure from typical Hollywood bio-pics. The film recreates 10 years (1964-1974) in the life of Muhammad Ali. Ali (born Cassius Clay) remains an icon of the 1960s, a symbol of African-American pride and youth rebellion, as well as a world and Olympic champion boxer.

Telling the story of Ali's rise to fame necessitates giving the audience an impression of the power of the 1960s black liberation movement: a defining influence on Ali's life.

While Mann's three-hour film sometimes lacks continuity between historical events, it captures some pivotal events, including the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Some snippets of historical footage are craftily combined with flashbacks and narrative to fill in the background.

The film opens with Ali's (played by Will Smith) first fight against Sonny Liston, in which Ali win the heavyweight world title, juxtaposed with flashbacks from earlier times. A childhood Ali sits at the back of a segregated bus looking with horror at a newspaper photo of Emmett Till, a black boy lynched for looking at a white woman.

Watching the fight between Ali and Liston in Miami is black radical Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles). The year is 1964 and Malcolm X has become a powerful influence on the young Ali.

Following the fight, Ali announced his conversion to Islam and his adoption of the name Muhammad Ali (beloved of Allah). "Clay is a slave name", he declared.

Malcolm X said of the fight with Liston: "Cassius is the black man's hero. Do you know why? Because the white press wanted him to lose ... because he is a Muslim. You notice nobody cares about the religion of other athletes. But their prejudice against Clay blinded them to his ability."

In the first hour of the film, the relationship between Ali and Malcolm is developed. In one very powerful scene, Malcolm X visits Ali in a New York hotel room. When Malcolm asks Ali what in his life has made him really angry, Ali recounts his experience as a child seeing a photo of Till. Malcolm describes the anger and grief that he felt following the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Because this was Martin Luther King's territory, the Nation of Islam insisted that he not speak out about it.

Ali and Malcolm have a brief encounter in Ghana in May 1964. Other notables appear in this scene as well, including Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana, and black activist, poet and writer, Maya Angelou. Ali says to Malcolm, "You shouldn't have quarrelled with [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad". This scene leaves us pondering why Ali never followed his mentor out of the Nation of Islam.

Following Malcolm X's estrangement from the Nation of Islam, there is a scene in which an FBI agent working undercover in the Nation of Islam is told by his superior, "We were better off when Malcolm was still in the Nation". A short time later, Malcolm X is brutally assassinated.

Ali's greatest fame followed his controversial decision in May 1967 to refuse to be drafted to fight in Washington's war against the Vietnamese people. "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger", he declared.

Minutes after his announcement, the New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association suspended his boxing licence and stripped him of his world heavyweight title. Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, was released on appeal, and eventually had his conviction overturned. His boxing career had been interrupted for three years. But the experience failed to break his determination.

The climax of the movie, the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle", in which Ali fought world heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, is truly moving. Ali's desire to promote black power and anti-colonial solidarity is contrasted with the cynical efforts of Zaire's US-backed dictator Mobutu and US promoter Don King to exploit the fight for their own interests.

From the moment Ali sets foot in Zaire it is obvious he is the people's choice. This is captured in a beautiful scene in which Ali jogs through the slums of Kinshasa amongst a sea of welcome faces. After Foreman delays the fight for six weeks, the suspense builds up until the final knockout, when Ali once again regains the heavyweight crown.

The boxing scenes are brilliantly choreographed by Mann. Smith (a lean figure compared to Ali) captivates the audience with his reenactment of Ali's speed and fancy footwork.

Unfortunately, Ali, while still a figure with tremendous stature, is no longer a staunch opponent of America's wars. Since September 11, Ali has been held up by establishment figures as a symbol of US unity: being both a Muslim American and a defender of "Operation Enduring Freedom".

Ali is an important film above all because it tells the story of who Ali was and why Ali is a legend to so many.

From Green Left Weekly, March 13, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

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