It’s hard to think of a contemporary historical figure who has had more movies made about him than Muhammad Ali. The multi-time heavyweight champion, known as “The Greatest of All Time” before anyone thought to abbreviate that to “GOAT,” has been the subject of numerous documentaries, about just about every aspect of his life and career. He even once starred in a biopic of himself, The Greatest, in 1977.
Christmas Day 2001 saw the release of a full-on Hollywood biopic of the champ, called simply Ali. Directed by Michael Mann, who co-wrote with Eric Roth, the film didn’t stray far from the sports biopic formula but executed it to near-perfection. Mann, not exactly an intuitive choice for this material, ended up being just the right man for the job. Ali continued a great stretch for the director, who made his best film, The Insider, two years earlier.
I thought Ali was underrated when it first arrived and has remained so for the ensuing two decades. There were questions about whether Will Smith was up to playing Ali, but the former Fresh Prince ably channeled The Greatest’s charisma and presence. The film had a great beginning and an even better ending. The first eight minutes combined Ali training footage with a song by Sam Cooke (Ali and Cooke’s friendship would come up again in Regina King’s fine 2020 drama One Night in Miami):
Ali also had just the right structure: It begins with Ali (then Cassius Clay) winning the championship from Sonny Liston in 1964 and follows Ali’s conversion to Islam, his joining of the Nation of Islam, his refusal to join the Army, and ultimate three-and-a-half-year suspension from the ring. The entire third act is taken up by the run-up to Ali’s fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, with the fight itself presented nearly in real time as we see Ali execute the “rope-a-dope” strategy to beat his much-younger challenger and take back the crown.
That same Ali/Foreman fight was the subject of the best Muhammad Ali movie of all, Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, the decades-in-the-works documentary that finally came out in 1996 and won the Best Documentary Oscar that year.
A succession of great actors plays the familiar members of Ali’s entourage. Jamie Foxx was Drew Bundini Brown, Ron Silver played Angelo Dundee, Jeffrey Wright was the photographer Howard Bingham. Albert Hall — who played Malcolm X’s prison mentor in Spike Lee’s film — once again played a Nation of Islam figure, this time portraying Elijah Muhammad. Jon Voight was Howard Cosell.
The biggest weakness of Mann’s film is that Ali’s many marriages and divorces are dealt with somewhat clumsily. Ken Burns’ lengthy Ali documentary series earlier this year, called simply Muhammad Ali, dealt with the champ’s womanizing more expertly.
The film arrived a few months after the 9/11 attacks, and Smith and Ali memorably appeared together at the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon. When the film arrived, it opened big but didn’t really have legs at the box office, while it only got two Oscar nominations, both for acting (Smith and Jon Voight). The best Picture winner that year was the far-inferior A Beautiful Mind. It’s been suggested that the post-9/11 timing of its release had something to do with its rejection by audiences, as it probably would have been a better fit 2 or 3 years later, although the film was briefly re-released following Ali’s death in 2016.
Ali is streaming on Netflix, and very much worth another look.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.