“The champ is here! The champ is here! The champ is here!”
Like the champion whose name it shares, Ali is imperfect and important. A work about a man who stood among the greatest Americans.
From the opening half hour of the film, Ali tosses aside traditional narrative momentum. It feeds you the appropriate information to understand who Muhammed Ali was from his childhood as Cassius Clay to his world heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston. Trading in traditional storytelling introductions prove to be a form-following-story decision. Ali himself was an unconventional man who never apologized for his convictions or methods. His story was not built on moment-to-moment iconography, it was built on monuments.
There’s a tenderness to Smith’s performance as Ali where the gravitas of the living legend are blended with the righteous fury thrust upon him. Smith’s turn is an embodiment of Muhammed Ali, realized after Smith underwent nearly a year’s worth of neurobiological therapy to get into the mindset of Ali, subsequently lived and breathed the man until owned everything from his charisma to his dialect. Smith presents him as he should be presented, as a powerhouse of emotion and entertainment. His wit was sharp and his persona was loved.
Smith and Mann also capture portions of the less mythologized chapters, some of the personal shortcomings and complex relationships in Ali’s life. In a scene leading to one of Ali’s various affairs, he contemplates how Islam has helped him in his life but also how he is unable to remain loyal to the women in his life. Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith), Belinda Boyd (Nona Gaye), and Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) enter his life when confronting his initial heavyweight title, his religion and government, and his final fight in Africa. The emotion is heavy as Ali’s unfaithful relationships show him as a lovable, loving, but imperfect man.
Michael Mann’s heavy reliance on mood to extrapolate his recurring and evolutionary aesthetics elevate the atmosphere surrounding the conflict. Ali was proud to be black in a time when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were murdered for fighting for the right to be seen as human. Ali stood tall, unashamed in his abilities, stating, “I ain’t got to be what nobody else wants me to be, and I ain’t afraid to be what I want to be.”
A scene in the second half of the film shows Ali running through the streets of Zaire. Waves of adoring fans playfully join in his morning regimen, each in awe of the presence of The Champ. Ali takes a moment to look at the artist interpretations of himself on street art and the faces in the crowd. He sees the necessity of what he’s accomplished thus far and why he must always fight.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is crisp, mixing film with early use of digital cameras to capture Ali’s workout routines. One of the defining scenes of the picture revolves around Ali after the MLK assassination. Ali looks out at a city rioting, distraught at the loss of another African American fighting for equal rights of the American people. It’s a small fraction of the film but the visual involvement remains a high mark for Lubezki’s career.
On early viewings, it never sat right with me how the movie ended on “The Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammed Ali. A previous scenes has Ali’s second wife rightly confront him on his financial backers, “Do you think they give a damn if you get killed?” It seemed the movie at that point understood the life of Ali, that it was about more than him being the best physical boxer in the world, that it knew what made him truly the best fighter was his steadfast devotion to the pursuit of happiness, fairness, righteousness. But Ali doesn’t fight for the people who try to control him, he fights for his right to choose.
As hard as Ali fought, the good fight still rages on.
On June 3, 2016, the same day Muhammad Ali passed away, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a commencement speech at City College of New York:
“It’s the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters two beautiful black young women head off to school waving goodbye to their father, the President of the United States… You are living, breathing proof that the American Dream endures in our time. It’s you.”
That was Muhammed Ali. That’s what he fought for. That’s why he was among the most important fighters, in and out of the ring, the world would ever know and Smith, Mann, and the entire production are able to capture the real reason we love The Champ.