Published January 9, 2002
The bigger the fan of Mohammed Ali you are, the more you will like Ali, Michael Mann’s almost embarrassingly obsequious tribute to the champ. This is an Ali’s-eye view of Ali (Will Smith), but for those of us whose admiration of the fighter stops short of idolatry, it is an unsatisfactory experience. In fact, it reinforces the skeptic’s case that in Ali’s life the only person who ever really mattered was Ali. Certainly that is true of this film, where even such central characters as his father (Giancarlo Esposito), his wives (Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona M. Gaye, Michael Michele), and his long-time manager and confidant, Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), remain essentially walk-ons. Only Howard Cosell (John Voight) is anything more, and he gets the attention he does only (one suspects) because of his usefulness in making Ali the superstar he became.
It is also a movie nearly devoid of dramatic development, instead achieving its effects by one extended montage after another with linking dramatic vignettes. Its opening montage, for instance, intercuts between a performance by Sam Cooke, a speech by Malcolm X, and Mohammed Ali (or Cassius Clay, as he then was), training for the first of his fights with Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) in 1964, all of it to the accompaniment of Cooke’s classic songs. This parade of images is interrupted by a scene of Clay at the weigh-in before the fight where he taunts Liston and the latter takes it in silence until finally he turns and says with a practised thuggish menace: “I’m going to f*** you up.” Then comes the fight, presented as another wordless montage, in which Clay famously f***s him up.
Mind you, the fight montage is a very good one, but already it is beginning to dawn upon us that this is a film that is going to be much more a celebration than a serious probe into the mind and heart of an actual human being. Ali was a hero for his time and for ours: a hero of extravagant words and gestures and absolute devotion to the cult of himself. Those who are not the spiritual children of the sixties are likely to feel a certain retrospective if reluctant sympathy for poor Liston, an old-fashioned, strong-but-silent, Gary Cooper type at least in this one respect: that he was prepared to let his fists do the talking. Mann has him cheating in the first fight, however, just so we know that this is the bad guy.
The film like its subject is full of puffery and self-promotion. Cameos (as it were) by actors playing Sam Cooke Jim Brown, Maya Angelou, and the late President Mobutu of Zaire remind us of Ali’s fame and world-encompassing importance, while his relationship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) establishes him as a serious political figure in spite of what is arguably the only moment in the film where Mann tentatively offers us a negative view of Ali: when he tells Malcolm “You shouldn’t have quarreled with the Honorable Elijah Mohammed,” and turns his back on him. References to pain and outrage over the lynching of Emmet Till and the Birmingham church-bombing are also used to establish Ali’s credentials as a civil rights leader, though all he did (if he did anything besides feel) for the black man, he did first and foremost for himself.
Even his devotion to the Nation of Islam, such as it was, seems to have been more a way of shocking and provoking the mainstream, white-dominated culture that — especially in the world of sport and athletics — was as yet innocent of the coveted cachet of the “hip.” There is a significant scene in which Cassius Clay Sr. responds to the news that his son, the new heavyweight champion, is to change his name from Cassius Clay Jr. to Mohammed Ali: “What’s wrong with our name?” he asks, appealing to some residual filial regard for his progenitor.
“Nobody made me,” Ali replies. “I made me.”
At one level this is intended as a reference to the efforts by which he made himself into a champion boxer, but in a larger sense it is the story of his life. Ali was a man who wanted to be able to say: “I made me” and so he became as much a mascot of the 1960s social revolution as the Beatles, who in somewhat the same spirit claimed to be “more famous than Jesus.” The new name and its break from the past also suggested a proud ignorance of that past since Clay/Ali, ostensibly as an expression of “black power,” gave up the name of a famous abolitionist in order to take that of a famous slave-trader. Similarly, like thousands of his contemporaries who called themselves “opponents of the war” but who couldn’t find Vietnam on a map, he proclaimed without any sense of irony that “I got to be what I want to be, think how I want to think.”
Like everything else in the movie, the war is only emblematic of some vague sense of government oppression. FBI eavesdroppers also put in without any dramatic context. We have no idea what they were listening for, and there is no discussion of the origins or results of their eavesdropping. Being Ali means being spied on and persecuted by the government. That is enough for us to know, as we know it already. In the same way the film is content with the suggestion of FBI involvement in the assassination of Malcolm X but doesn’t try to justify it dramatically. Once again, it appeals primarily to those who already know the story, or the story as Ali wants it to be known.
Accordingly, too, it ends with the “Rumble in the Jungle” — unquestionably the moment of supreme triumph in Ali’s life when he knocked out the seemingly invincible George Foreman (Charles Shufford) in Zaire in 1974 — and doesn’t follow him into the sad defeat and decline of his premature and Parkinson’s disease-ridden old age. No doubt Ali himself likes it better this way, but then he never did want the world to see him as a mere human being.