Most likely, you’ve heard everything you need to hear about Muhammad Ali, especially recently, what with all the publicity for Michael Mann’s Ali. Outrageous and outsized, he’s one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, and surely one of the most incessantly documented and represented. As if to increase the noise level, over the Christmas holiday, ESPN found footage to make up 25 hours of programming, and then played it a few times, to form an incessant loop of Ali-ness. There you see him again and again — in stills and archival fight footage — mouthing off with Howard Cosell, boxing with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Sonny Liston, watching Billy Crystal do a decidedly strange compression of his life by acting out Ali and various contenders. It was a weird and wild (and lengthy) array of moments, yet somehow it was hard to look away. Ali embodies a kind of car-wreck charisma — arrogant and self-conscious, beautiful and fierce, even on twenty-year-old tape, he can take your breath away.
This ability to mesmerize makes Ali who he is, or more accurately, who everyone wants him to be. He’s a cipher and a screen onto which viewers might project themselves. Even now that he’s been embraced by the mainstream, Ali’s story is a rife with as much controversy as deference, and plenty of people still hold him in contempt for his loud resistance to the Vietnam war and his sometimes compromised allegiance to the Nation of Islam. So, the fact that Mann and Fresh-Prince-turned-mega-movie-star Will Smith even imagined bringing this story to the screen made headlines. How could they pretend to convey Ali’s brilliance? How could a movie do justice to the complexity or the hugeness of the man?
For all the hype and all the expectations, Ali is unexpected. Knowledgeable, evocative, and occasionally excessive, the film jumps right into its big subject and bold concept and never looks back. It begins with a breathtaking sequence. Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, jogs in a hooded sweatshirt along a snowy city street, followed briefly by a cop car, from which a white officer asks, “What you runnin’ from, son?” Clay keeps jogging, unbothered because he’s so used to such careless cruelty, but you can’t help but realize the pervasive whiteness of his world — it begins t explain his drive. Intercut with this scene, dated 24 February 1964, are repeated shots of Sam Cooke on stage, singing an incredible medley over the cuts — “Somebody Have Mercy,” “It’s All Right,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and more — the camera barely keeping up with him as fans swoon. Cut again, to lay on the speed bag, his face close, his punches rhythmic and rapid; cut to Sonny Liston beating Floyd Patterson; to the child Ali, watching his father, Cassius Clay, Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito), paint a white Jesus for a white church; to young Cassius stepping to the back of a bus, past a newspaper with a headline on the lynching of Emmett Till; to Clay grown, standing in the back of a Muslim meeting room, as Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) declares, “We don’t teach you to turn the other cheek.”
With these deft strokes, Ali begins to lay out (and admittedly, reduce) the many complex factors that made Muhammad Ali “the greatest” — champion boxer, commercial goldmine, and man of conscience — however troubled and erratic he was in any of these roles. Cooke continues to sing over shots of the young, magnificent Clay in the gym, watched over by his fast-talking cornerman Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx), friend and photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright), and trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), all intent on getting this kid, already an Olympic gold medallist, ready to take on Liston. Cut once more, as the song closes, to the Clay-Liston weigh-in, as Ali advises the champ that he is going to “fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” So insistent, so confident, so fantastic, Clay was already a self-aggrandizing loudmouth, offending old-school sportswriters with his lack of “respect.” Rumble young man rumble.
Exciting and nervy, this first set of images, at once urgent and impressionistic, stands as a kind of fair warning. This movie will be no standard biopic. It won’t give you a series of facts, it won’t show you how Ali came to be, it won’t explain or even “represent” him in any usual way. Selecting a particular time period — the tumultuous ten years between Clay/Ali’s first heavyweight title triumph in ’65 and his amazing “rope-a-dope” performance to recover that title in Zaire, during 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” (thrillingly documented in Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings) — the film doesn’t pretend to tell the “whole” story of the man or his times. Instead, it throws moments at you, a lot of them, almost all scored with period music (though the “inspired-by” soundtrack cd features popular new acts, including R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, and Moby) and all coming with a speed that makes them imprecise. It presumes you can fill in blanks.
Just so, the film doesn’t so much introduce characters as it lets them loose in mid-action: trainers, friends, and family members (Ali had five or six kids during this decade — out of 9 total — but the film barely acknowledges them) are more illustrative background elements than developed characters. Sometimes, this is a surprisingly effective strategy: Foxx as Bundini is especially scrappy and alive in the role, so that the smidgen of screen time he has turns electric. In other cases, as with Paul Rodriguez playing Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, there’s nothing to be done but show up in the frame (perhaps, you think, his dialogue was lost in cutting).
Occasionally, Ali lapses into a more ordinary, episodic cadence, as it “reports” on events. He wins the title; he receives his Muslim name from Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall); he seduces and marries first wife Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith); Malcolm (Mario Van Peebles, in an underdeveloped role) and Martin (LeVar Burton, in this single moment, that is, no role) shake hands on a TV in the background of a shot where Ali is doing sit-ups in the foreground; Malcolm is assassinated; Ali is convicted of “refusing induction” (“Ain’t no VC ever called me nigger”); his lawyer, Chauncy Eskridge (solid Joe Morton), represents him all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturns his conviction and grants him conscientious objector status; etc.
Still, despite this storytelling (call it “cramming”) impulse, the film maintains a kind of audacious subjectivity. It’s not that it takes Ali’s point of view, exactly (though it’s his more than anyone else’s); it’s more that it filters all this history, so well-known and yet so abstract, though a haze of riotous conscience. The movie makes clear that he adores himself, and also that he tramples all over many hearts, including the women he loves and leaves, including Sonji, Belinda (Nona Gaye), and Veronica (Michael Michele), and the friendship with Malcolm that he forsakes in order to keep tight with Elijah Muhammad (bad choice, the movie argues, as the Nation goes on to exploit Ali).
Of course, the boxing scenes — brutal, up-close, and metaphorical too — expose much of this internal turmoil as externalized and choreographed professional battling. Mann and DP Emmanuel Lubezki concoct a dazzling arrangement of wide and extremely tight shots, and used a mini handheld camera that allowed them to get in between fighters and create a grainy whoosh in the image. Also of course, the film doesn’t really challenge boxing, as ideology, sport, or commercial/exploitative business, it also never lets you forget that Ali came to his greatness amidst entrenched racism. And this is the film’s own bit of greatness, that it presents U.S. racism without apologizing, explaining, or looking away from this legacy. It’s ugly.
As for the seeming Ali-ness attained by Ali — it’s a mixed bag. Smith really trained, boxed, and studied Islam, yes yes, and he abstained from sex with Jada. All that, no matter how true, has long since turned into marketing strategy, repeated for GQ and Jay Leno, playing the game much as Ali himself might have played it (though certainly not so vividly as he has). In the film, Smith is working hard in the role — and god knows he owes us all for making The Legend of Bagger Vance. And if he never transforms himself into Ali, or what viewers want him to be, he achieves a poetically licensed otherness, and a truly strong performance. Perhaps most strikingly, Smith’s most effective scenes, despite Ali’s notorious verbal dexterity, involve no dialogue, just the camera (sometimes way too tight for regular comfort levels) on his face and utterly expressive body.
Though the film obviously reveres Ali, and omits many details, it also offers enough shading to allow you to imagine his emotional and ethical struggles (as well as his enormous ego). It probably helps if you know a little something about Muhammad Ali before you walk into the theater, for instance, that he is a devoted member of the Nation, that he knew and quarreled with Elijah Muhammad as well as Malcolm; struggled with the rush and privilege accompanying his celebrity; cheated on three of his four wives; felt exploited by managers and promoters, including Elijah’s son Herbert Muhammad (Barry Shabaka Henley) and Don King (Mykelti Williamson); venerated his longtime friend Howard Cosell (well played by Jon Voight under a heap of makeup); and resisted the draft when he was reclassified 1-A in 1966, after he failed the aptitude test in 1964 and was declared by the government to have an IQ of 78.
Running about two and forty minutes, the movie makes room for these many parts of Ali’s life by not dwelling on any of them. Instead, it grants glimpses, as in a brief hotel room scene, when second wife Belinda confronts him about his rather public affair with about-to-be-third wife, Veronica. Or as when Ali goes running in Kinshasa, Zaire, accompanied by passionate well-wishers. He comes upon a mural depicting his crazily superhuman stature, his reputation and his value for them, in that it envisions him fighting off Mubutu’s oppressive regime much as he fights off George Foreman or giant bees with stingers.
So much of the movie is most focused on Ali’s early, U.S.-based career, so this moment, as he suddenly sees outside himself, to how others might see him, galvanizes him, and not so indirectly, comments on the costs of U.S. self-importance. While the film ends, literally freezes, on his victorious Rumble, it never backs off its consideration of the era’s politics — the racism and jingoism, the classism and misogyny — which are everywhere visible, in Ali’s detractors but also in his own behaviors. Mann is a famously earnest filmmaker, and here again he leans on a few signature techniques to make his principled points, hugely foregrounded faces to denote contemplation or revelation, handheld camerawork to indicate chaos. But the film is finally larger than such devices and the emotional manipulations they might attempt. But more importantly, it is premised on its inability to contain Ali. The bravest thing Ali does is to gesture toward, wonder at, and celebrate Muhammad Ali, and then let go of him.