It’s an incredibly daunting task to write about somebody you admire and hold in such high regard as I do Muhammad Ali. I consider Ali to be one of if not the most important people in the history of the United States of America, never mind one of the greatest athletes. He stands right alongside others I so deeply admire like Malcolm X, Spike Lee, Stokely Charmichael, and countless others. He’s also one of the few people that I get so emotional just thinking about what facet of his life I could try to do justice by writing about. Because he really is that much of an idol of mine. Like the blurb from the reviewer on the poster says, I too feel like I should utter “dare I say – I’ve seen em all”. But I’ve certainly devoted a large part of my life absorbing everything humanely possible about this incredibly amazing and inspiring individual.
This, in my opinion, is the most comprehensive document of his life that I’ve seen up to this point. Rather than choosing to focus entirely on his boxing career and fight highlights as so many documentaries of him that I’ve seen do, this really probes into Muhammad Ali “the man”. Shedding light on his childhood having been born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky (one of the only “American” identities he would go on to carry with him). They show his introduction to the sporting of boxing at the tender young age of 12, to going on to win the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome at the age of 18 and thus declaring that he would be “the heavyweight champion of the world at 21” (he would miss it by only a year). Then shows how he him being thrust into the global spotlight in his early twenties, where he would go on to denounce his birth name, Cassius Clay; because it was given to him by the white man and he thought of it to be a slave name. To the depictons of his religious and political affiliations with the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Which takes up about the half of the film. Which I liked because I’ve always found it to be the most fascinating aspect of his life. And ultimately wound up being drafted into the Vietnam War and refusing to go because of his religious beliefs (the Muslim faith was vehemently opposed to any type of violence, never mind War). Then being ostracized by not only the American government (shame on you), but the American people (shame on you more) and ultimately being stripped of his boxing license. Following this, after 3 long years of “American exile” and touring around college campuses and becoming the single most important spokesperson for the African American community (Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X had both already been assassinated by this point), he’s cleared of all charges of draft dodging and being “sincerely unpatriotic” (since when is that a crime?). By this point, the American people have lost faith, and say that a man who’s been gone from the sport for so long could never come back and be the champ. In typical Ali fashion he eventually comes back to the sport with more vigor and vengeance than he ever had up to that point in his career, and goes on to win 2 more heavyweight bouts (they skip over the infamous 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire, otherwise known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”. But remember, this not a documentary about his fights. And, finally, his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Which they shed very little light on. Why? Because there’s entirely no reason to. This man lived more in the first third of his life than any of us will in this life, the afterlife, and the next life after.
This is an unbelievable documentary, all biases aside, for the sole reason that it really gets into the heart and soul of a man who stood by his convictions and religious beliefs for the entirety of his boxing career and into his adult life no matter how he was viewed by the United States government or the American people. The opening scene alone really allows the viewer to see how much hatred a portion of the American demographic (mostly White poeple) disliked Ali. It opens with a voice over of some of the most unkind, mean spirited, and hateful comments a person could possibly made, and the camera pans in on Ali as he sits there fully composed and unscathed by anything he’s just heard. Despite facing so much adversity throughout his boxing career he always was aware of who he was and never gave up his ideals or what he stood for. He would never become someone’s else’s “puppet” (one reason why he eventually dropped his sponsorship group of White Capitalists and named the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s son to be his manager) but instead became a leader, mentor, and spokesperson for all Black men and women throughout America during a time when the nation was experiencing its most political unrest. If you have even the slightest interest in Muhammad Ali “the man” and don’t necessarily want to see a documentary that focuses solely on his fights (for that I would highly recommend 1996’s Academy Award winning documentary “When We Were Kings”) then this is the documentary for you. Never have we been given such unlimited access into the heart and soul of a man who truly was “The Greatest”. This is one, just behind “Life Itself” and alongside “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, that’s earned itself a #2 or #3 spot of my favorite documentaries of the year.
“See, we have been brainwashed. Everything good and of authority was made white. We look at Jesus, we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels, we see white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure if there’s a heaven in the sky and the colored folks die and go to heaven, where are the colored angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white!”
“Why are we called Negroes”? “Why are we deaf, dumb, and blind“? Why is everybody making progress and yet we lag so far behind”?
-Muhammad Ali (Howard University, 1967)