“I am The Greatest!” boxing legend Muhammad Ali often shouted, not needing to convince anyone really — least of all himself — that he was one of the 20th century’s top athletes. He was a loud-mouth braggart, a womanizer, the original rap artist. Yet underneath the huckster was a man of true courage. With indomitable confidence and conviction, Ali fought not only in the ring but also against monolithic enemies such as racism, the U.S. government and the boxing establishment. Ali, with a stellar performance by Will Smith (The Legend of Bagger Vance), focuses on struggles in The Champ’s most tumultuous decade — 1964 to 1974. He was born Cassius Clay to a middle-class Christian family in Louisville, Ky. The day after the 22-year-old Olympic gold medal winner defeated Sonny Liston to win the World Boxing Association heavyweight championship in 1964, he announced to a shocked crowd his conversion to Islam. For Muhammad Ali (“worthy of praise”), the freedom to express his religion to the American sports public would be a long, hard battle. Members of the Nation of Islam not only divided the Afro-American community (going so far as to assassinate Malcolm X, played by Mario Van Peebles (Solo), but also terrified others who misinterpreted “black power” as a call to “kill whitey.” Ali further polarized the country when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” he said, so he felt no need to go off to a foreign country “to kill other poor people.” Before his case was won on appeal, Ali had been barred from boxing both in the U.S. and abroad, losing the momentum those years would have given his athletic career. He ended up broke and almost forgotten until the case was thrown out of court. After losing and regaining his heavyweight crown several times, at the relatively old age of 32, he proved he was still “The Greatest.” He defeated the younger George Foreman in the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo). In 1996, although slowed by Parkinson’s disease, Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. It was a moment of personal glory and a reminder to the country of how far it had come. More than a generation before, while actually wearing the gold medal he had won at the Olympics in Rome, Ali had been refused service at a restaurant. In a rage, he had flung the medal into the Ohio River. So much of the movie Ali is the man himself (Muhammad Ali cooperated fully with the film) that it is difficult to critique the film without judging the man — and this is where the problem of the movie lies. Will Smith’s performance is extraordinary. He bulked up 30 pounds and studied Ali until he looks and talks and fights so much like The Champ you forget you’re not watching a documentary. Other wonderful actors fill in the broad strokes of Ali’s personal life. There are his first three wives (Jada Pinkett Smith, Smith’s real-life wife), Nona Gaye (daughter of the late Marvin Gaye, in her film debut) and Michael Michele (TV’s ER.). And the friends who stood by him, such as sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, Pearl Harbor) and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx, Any Given Sunday). By its nature, Ali is about boxing: the training, the competition, the bravado, the hustle, the psychology, the glamour, the betting … and above all, the sheer brutality of two men beating one another’s brains out. But a fight is only interesting if you know both combatants, and director Michael Mann focuses so much on Ali that we never learn anything about his competitors. We never know what guts it took an opponent to butt head-on into Muhammad Ali, the two men laying out their souls with their punches. Thus, Ali ends up, not being about fighters, but about fabulous fighting footage. Concentrating on the up-close and personal, Ali unfortunately skims over Muhammad Ali’s reluctant role as lightning rod for the social issues of his time. Unless you’ re an aging baby boomer, Afro-American or sports enthusiast, I doubt the majority of audiences will be able to press together the various pieces of the movie’s story to make much sense of it. My advice is to first see on video Malcolm X (Spike Lee’s terrific, underrated feature). With the perspective of this earlier movie, the roles that racism, Malcolm X and Islam play in Muhammad Ali’s life are made clear — and become especially meaningful in light of today’s headlines.
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