In tribute to Muhammad Ali, who died on June 3, we are reprinting this biographical film review, “‘Ali’ is good … but not the greatest,” from our January 2002 issue.
By JOE AUCIELLO
“Ali,” directed by Michael Mann, starring Will Smith, Mario Van Peebles, Jon Voight. A Columbia Pictures release, 2001 (rated R, 158 min.)
No Black man in 20th century America was more famous than Muhammad Ali—not Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson. Who else could be, at the same time, an Olympic champion, a symbol of Black pride and nationalism, a symbol of youthful rebellion against the establishment both in sports and in society, a symbol of Islam, an antiwar martyr, and a superbly gifted athlete with an incredible string of victories?
Muhammad Ali was the hero of an entire generation in the militant 1960s: loud, brash, obnoxious, controversial, he possessed the strength and skill to silence his critics and stun his supporters. He fought all over the world and defeated every major heavyweight fighter of his day, became champion three times, and successfully fought his most grueling battles outside the boxing ring.
In his prime Ali stood up to frightening odds as a boxer and as a Muslim without a moment of self-doubt or self-compromise. No wonder he was idolized.
Perhaps Ali’s finest moment, the one that required the greatest measure of strength and courage, came in 1967 at the height of his success, when the U.S. government ordered the heavyweight champion to register for the draft. Ali refused on principle, citing his religious faith as a Muslim and his political convictions as a Black nationalist.
Malcolm X had spoken sharply against Black men’s willingness to enlist in Washington’s wars, fighting for “freedom” overseas but turning the other cheek at home. Only weeks before, Martin Luther King Jr. had for the first time criticized the Vietnam war and linked the civil rights movement to the peace movement. Muhammad Ali answered the government in a similar vein: “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”
Respectable opinion called him “ungrateful,” “unpatriotic,” and some even spoke of “treason.” Ali’s heavyweight title and his license to box were taken away from him. No matter. Ali did not yield.
More than any other athlete and as much as any individual, Muhammad Ali embodied the hopes of the youth rebellion that he entertained and inspired. James Brown’s hit song, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” seemed to be written for Muhammad Ali; it was the soundtrack to his life.
The film “Ali” does not, despite honest effort and good intentions, live up to the real-life Ali. The dilemma for the director is to capture on film the story of a man whose life is too large for a movie. The problem is not satisfactorily resolved, and perhaps, in all fairness, it cannot be.
The film covers the years 1964 to 1974, from the first fight against Sonny Liston when Ali won the heavyweight championship, to the fight against George Foreman when Ali regained the crown—the “Rumble in the Jungle,” which took place in Zaire. (One of his greatest battles, the third match against Joe Frazier in 1975, the “Thrilla in Manila,” is omitted).
Also omitted or minimized is the context of Ali’s life. To provide the historical backdrop and explain the depth of white racism in the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights and Black nationalist movements, the Nation of Islam, the protest struggles against the war in Vietnam, would be to include more material than a feature length film could possibly contain. The film’s unintentional result, however, is to diminish Ali’s impact on his era.
Muhammad Ali is not a man given to introspection, so the story of his life is largely told from the outside. The film’s infrequent use of voice-over does little to draw the audience inside the character. As a result, the audience does not understand, from the film itself, what motivates Ali.
Ali’s important relationship with Malcolm X, for instance, is never fully clear. The first hour of the movie is really the Muhammad Ali / Malcolm X story, told largely from the perspective of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (including scenes of federal agents wiretapping Malcolm’s phone and directing an informant inside the Nation of Islam).
Why, when Malcolm was forced out of the Nation of Islam, did Ali remain with Elijah Muhammad instead of following his mentor, Malcolm? Malcolm himself did not know, and so the movie provides no answer. Ali merely says to him, “You shouldn’t have quarreled with Elijah Muhammad.”
Despite these limitations of narrative point-of-view, the starring role is a personal triumph for actor Will Smith. His previous work gave little hint that he could fill the screen so thoroughly and believably, especially in the realistically choreographed fight scenes, where the film is at its best. Smith’s portrayal of Ali has already earned him Golden Globe nominations, and he is sure to receive an Oscar nomination as well.
Concluding in 1974, at a moment of triumph, the film says nothing about Ali’s life in recent years. The Muhammad Ali of today, the puffy-faced man with the soft voice, slurred speech, and shaking hands—symptoms of Parkinson’s disease—is still a potent personality. No other athlete had more right to stand in Atlanta in 1996 to light the Olympic torch.
Now, Hollywood wants to draft Ali as the national Islamic spokesman for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a role that unfortunately he is willing to accept. Perhaps no other public figure could make a more convincing commercial for U.S. imperialism. But, more than anyone, Ali knows—or should know—why he once again ought to refuse his support to another of Washington’s wars.
Yet, despite what Muhammad Ali may say or do today, this film will remind viewers of a time when he was truly “the greatest.”