We have a lot in common. I just understand him.
— Will Smith, “The Making of Ali“
I ain’t nobody’s well-behaved nothin’. No, no. I’m a man.
— Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), Ali
He would devise strategies like a chess player.
— Michael Mann, commentary track, Ali: The Director’s Cut
Outrageous and outsized, Muhammad Ali embodies a kind of car-wreck charisma. Arrogant and self-conscious, beautiful and fierce, even on 21-old videotape, he can take your breath away. This ability to mesmerize makes Ali who he is, or more accurately, who everyone wants him to be. Even now, long since embraced by mainstream consumers, Ali’s story inspires as much controversy as deference; some still hold him in contempt for his loud resistance to the Vietnam war and his sometimes compromised allegiance to the Nation of Islam. And so, reimagining him for Ali was something of a challenge. As director Michael Mann says in “The Making of Ali,” included on Columbia’s new release of the Director’s Cut to DVD, “It’s an awesome task to try and take on Ali.”
Even as it can’t possibly live up to expectations, Ali does its subject justice. On his commentary track (comprised of two sessions, denoted by different sound registers), Mann credits Ali‘s success to his close and dedicated partnership with star Will Smith. As Mann notes, even in the film, the man and myth remain at once elusive and too visible; watching his/Smith’s Ali interviewed by Howard Cosell (Jon Voigt), he says, “The uniqueness about Ali is the way Ali seems to embody so many of the trends of his time, especially the interaction between the personal self-definition, ‘Who I am,’ and then, ‘If I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, it’s who I am as the heavyweight champion of the world, to the whole world, ’cause the whole world is looking at me.'”
Knowledgeable and intimate, evocative and occasionally excessive, Mann’s Ali 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 is here surrounded by whiteness — as snow, as power, as casual and pervasive racism. At the same time, intercut with this scene, dated 24 February 1964, come 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”), the camera barely keeping up with him as fans swoon. Cut again, to Clay 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 lays out the complex factors that made Muhammad Ali “the greatest,” champion boxer, commercial goldmine, and man of conscience. 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.
This first set of images, at once urgent and impressionistic, stands as a kind of fair warning. Ali is no standard biopic. It doesn’t deliver facts or events as if their existence is enough information. It is a social and political tract, and investigation of the culture that made Ali. 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 offers impressions and fragments, presuming viewers will fill in blanks.
And 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 nine 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); at others (Paul Rodriguez playing Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco), performances look like they’ve been cut.
Sometimes, Ali lapses into a more ordinary, episodic cadence, reporting 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 utterly compelling performance) and Martin (LeVar Burton, in this single moment) 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 (Joe Morton), represents him all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturns his conviction and grants him conscientious objector status.
The very public and enduring moment of Ali’s resistance to the draft, his conviction and his initial sentence, becomes in this pointed film its own set piece here. As he strides from the courtroom, surrounded by a mobbish press corps, he makes his case. “I’ve been in jail for 400 years, I can be there for four or five more. But I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I wanna die, I’ll die right here, right now, fighting you. If I wanna die. You my enemy.”
During such moments, when Ali’s rage and compassion mix it up, the film achieves a remarkable, provocative subjectivity. Mann explains political context on his commentary track (what he calls the “psychodynamics of being victimized by racial structures… People colonized within their own country, rebelling against that colonization, in social, political, and economic structures, but also in cultural structures. How my society, or my culture, tells me I oughta think about myself”). At the same time, the movie draws expansive, self-expressive pictures, articulating layers of history.
Ali doesn’t precisely take 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. Ali 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 (with much and lasting upset in his own heart) in order to keep tight with Elijah Muhammad (bad choice, the movie argues, as the Nation goes on to exploit Ali).
The scenes showing Ali’s conversation with other boxers, and the boxing scenes — brutal, up-close, and metaphorical too — expose much of this internal turmoil as choreographed professional battling. Mann remarks, “The sociology, the social relations, amongst boxers, are of course different than the business of boxing within a three minute round, in which every iota of intelligence and every unit of energy is focused on outwitting, out-strategizing, and destruction of your opponent.” The director 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 produce a grainy whoosh in the image.
As the film celebrates Ali’s stardom, it also considers boxing, as ideology, sport, or commercial and exploitative business. Though it doesn’t challenge the business’ fundamentally exploitative structure, it does, repeatedly, present U.S. racism plainly. All his life, Ali fought on multiple fronts. To even begin to reproduce this reality, Smith trained, boxed, and studied Islam, and he achieves a poetically licensed otherness, and a truly strong performance. His 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 some (though not all) details that might detract from this reverence, it offers enough shading to allow you to imagine his emotional and ethical struggles, and his enormous ego. The film doesn’t specify numerous well-known parts of his life, and it’s good to know, before you see the film, that he was and remains 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 in a mighty wig); and venerated his longtime friend Cosell.
Running about 150 minutes in its theatrical release (and 165 in the Director’s Cut), Ali grants only glimpses of these many aspects of the man’s public and private life — for instance, a brief hotel room scene, when second wife Belinda confronts him about his rather public affair with about-to-be-third wife, Veronica, or, his run through the streets of Kinshasa, Zaire, accompanied by passionate well-wishers (“Ali, bumaye!”). Here he comes upon a mural depicting his crazily superhuman stature, his reputation and value for this particular community, depicting 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 critics but also in his own behaviors.
Mann is a famously earnest filmmaker (at times his commentary is nearly whispered, like he’s a respectful golf tournament commentator). 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 Ali is finally so much larger than such devices, wisely understanding that it cannot contain Ali. The bravest thing Ali does is to gesture toward, wonder at, and celebrate Muhammad Ali, and then let go of him.