I Am Ali/Ali
I Am Ali Directed by Clare Lewins
Ali Directed by Michael Mann
Available to Rent/Netflix
"Rumble, young man, rumble."
In the early hours of the morning of June 2, 2016, an asteroid exploded over Phoenix, Arizona. As June 2nd turned to June 3rd, the life of Muhammad Ali came to an end in Phoenix, Arizona. In its own amazing and awesome manner, it seems like the universe was trying to prepare us.
There's a moment of tension in the documentary I Am Ali. It's a moment of tension for anyone who remembers the 1974 heavyweight battle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Foreman was 25 back in 1974, the reigning champion and not only the most dangerous fighter who had ever stepped into a ring back then but possibly the most dangerous fighter of, well, ever. He wasn't a finesse fighter, he wasn't a scientific or a strategic fighter. He brought a level of brutality and violence to the sport that wouldn't be seen again until a young Mike Tyson shook the world. He was young and hungry and at his peak physically. Ali was 32, he had lost the most important four years of his career in a battle with the American government. For anyone too young to know about this moment in boxing history, it's no exaggeration to note that the common wisdom of the time was that at very least Ali would be seriously injured by Foreman, at the worst he could die. The fight has become one of the defining moments in sports history.
The moment of tension in the film comes when George Foreman remarks that he is insulted when Muhammad Ali is called the greatest boxer of all time. I held my breath for a moment while Foreman paused. Is this the moment when Foreman turns on Ali? Is the older, wiser, much beloved Foreman about to unleash some bitterness after decades of living in the shadow of his greatest defeat? He had seemed to have to come to a place of peace with his place in sports history over the last couple of decades. Maybe this time of humility was over? I shouldn't have worried. "You can't limit Ali to boxing," Foreman continued, "he is one of the greatest people to ever walk the Earth." Not the tensest moment in any documentary, not particularly revelatory, but, still, old boxers are an unpredictable bunch, and old boxers from the era that produced Ali and Foreman and Norton and Frazier, they're the most unpredictable of all. It would be sad and troubling and heart-breaking but not completely unimaginable if Foreman had backed away from his comments of 2003, when he said in an interview with Dave Zirin, "(Ali's) the greatest man I've ever known. Not greatest boxer that's too small for him… Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is."
When I heard the news on Friday night that Ali was hospitalized in Phoenix, that he was having respiratory issues, that his condition was grave, that it would only be a matter of hours I thought back over the years, trying to remember a time when I didn't know the name Muhammad Ali. There isn't one, he's always been there, a mythic icon, a complicated human, a man of great contradictions and poetry. I was born in the year he began his battle with the American government, refusing to be drafted to fight into a war he disagreed with, the government refusing to grant him conscientious objector status. Again, for those too young to know, Ali was never a draft dodger. A draft dodger exiled themselves, moved to other countries, went to school, found other options. Ali was never a draft dodger, he was a draft denier.
"A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life."
I can't speak for everyone of my generation, only for myself. So these are my lessons from the life of Muhammad Ali. Be willing to compromise, but never compromise your principles. Learn from your mistakes, continue to learn, continue to grow, be willing to accept change. The most important things in life are humour and art and love. Live with your regrets, never deny them. In this binary culture we live in now someone like Muhammad Ali should be held as an example of a life lived to the fullest. Yes, he did say some troubling things about race, about politics, about religion. But he would go on to change those positions as he grew wiser, as he examined the evidence. And yes, he rarely apologized. But why should he have? As Ali himself would have pointed out to you, my imaginary argumentative troll, where were the apologies for the things said and done to him, to his family, to his people?
For this weekend's review I was going to take another look at When We Were Kings, the 1996 Oscar winning documentary about the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. It really is one of the greatest American documentaries ever made period. But it seemed kind of… obvious. And then I thought, maybe I should take a look at Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight. But then I thought, its more of an examination of the court battle than a life. And so I found myself looking for more of an intimate portrayal of the man's life, something that went where few films went. And I thought I should make it a double feature and take a fresh look at Michael Mann's Ali from 2001.
I Am Ali is a 2014 documentary that manages to do the one thing that no other documentary on Ali has done - it portrays the fighter, the humanitarian, the icon as father and friend and brother and son. Intercut with audiotapes that Muhammad Ali had made of conversations with his young children and with friends and current interviews with family and partners and friends and fans, Ali the parent and Ali the friend and mentor is presented without judgement. There's nothing groundbreaking, nothing controversial in I Am Ali. It's a perfectly vanilla documentary. It's more of a love letter than anything. But it it is still a revelation. And seeing it now, after Ali's death, it seems to have added depth, added dimensions. His brother Rahaman breaking down while talking about what Ali means to him. Veronica Porche Ali talking about his declining health. Muhammad Ali, Jr talking about growing up with that name. Marvis Frazier talking about his father's and Ali's moment of forgiveness and redemption just before Joe Frazier's death - all these moments, and more, make this a timely and emotional roller coaster film. It's available on Netflix and is worth checking out for a look at the human side of the myth.
Directed by Michael Mann Ali hits all those Michael Mann sweet spots, sexy and noirish and macho and surprisingly humourless. Seriously, if it wasn't for the interactions between Will Smith and Jon Voight Ali would have no laughs in a film about one of the funniest Americans to ever live. As it is, Ali will probably always be the single most serious film ever made about Muhammad Ali. Opening with a montage of a Sam Cooke nightclub show and Ali running in the night and a young Ali watching his father paint a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus on a church wall and seeing the news of Emmett Till's murder on the front page of Louisville paper while standing in the back of a bus, Ali tries too hard to cram too much in, tries too hard to make too many statements.
It looks great and everyone is uniformly great in it, especially Will Smith and Jon Voight. But they always get the attention for this film. Jamie Foxx is great as Bundini Brown but is let down by a script that overreaches when trying to capture Bundini's particular way of seeing the world. Ron Silver really does capture that Angelo Dundee-thing, that quiet and stillness. And I really think it's a crime that Jada Pinkett Smith gets overlooked when this movie is talked about. Her portrayal of Sonji Ali is sexy and strong. The chemistry between her and her husband is the kind of the thing that songs are written about. Some people make a big deal out of Hepburn and Tracy, or Bogart and Bacall, or Pitt and Jolie. Smith and Smith need to be added to that list. Watching their scenes together, I couldn't help but think "why aren't these two in every movie together?" and "why can't Ali just spend some more time on this part of the man's life?"
Ali is a fine film, it's a good film, it's just not among Michael Mann's great films. Though if I find a copy of the director's cut, I may end up eating those words. The problem is a plethora of riches. With a life so fully lived in those ten years between the first Sonny Liston fight and the Rumble in the Jungle, there is too much story to make a satisfactory film. With Ali trying to have it all, trying to present everything - three of his four marriages, the battle with the U.S. government, his friendships with Malcolm X and Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, his relationships with his family and entourage and the Nation of Islam and Herbert and Elijah Muhammad and the contradictions and paradoxes of his beliefs and the way he lived his life, all while using his boxing career as the centrepiece of the film - it becomes too much weight for the movie and it results in an almost Forrest Gump examination of a life, all highlight reel.
Ali is available to rent or own or stream or procure in a manner of your choosing.
Anyway. This has gone on way too long. I'm not going to apologize. Muhammad Ali was man and myth, human and icon. He was probably the most famous person who has ever lived. He lived his life as he wanted, not as others would dictate. Currently, some are on the internet sharing things he said and saying "see, that's why he should not be revered". But that's like looking at a single brush stroke error in Piccaso's Guernica or looking at a single out of focus tree in an Ansel Adams photograph and complaining. You're missing the masterpiece with your myopia. Stand back, take it all in, let the masterpiece speak to you in its entirety.
"I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world."