‘I Am Ali’ sheds light into ‘fascinating life story’

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Many boxing aficionadoes consider three-time World Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali, to be the greatest fighter in history. At the height of his career, Ali was arguably the most famous person on the planet. “Sports Illustrated” named him Sportsman of the 20th Century, while the BBC designated him Sports Personality of the Century.

Ali’s achievements as a boxer, considerable as they were, constitute only a small part of his legacy.

Ali’s accomplishments have already been amply chronicled on screen. The Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings” depicted Ali’s 1974 Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” focused on his personal politics and his conviction on draft evasion charges. “The “Ali,” a Hollywood biopic, offered Will Smith as the eponymous protagonist. There were many other films about Ali. Both documentary and narrative. Hadn’t the subject matter been exhausted?

Documentarian, Clare Lewins, a veteran of British television, decided otherwise. She learned of some home audio recordings and home movies from the 70s, which featured Ali. After a year of lobbying, Lewins finally obtained permission to use this archival fodder in her projected film. Undaunted by the existence of prior films about the former pugilist, Lewins mounted “I Am Ali.”

The film reprises the familiar touchstones of Ali’s life, organized into thematically arranged chapters. The film benefits from the inclusion of new interviews recorded specifically for the film.  This includes famous athletes like Joe Frazier, with whom Ali waged a trio of historic ring battles; George Foreman from whom he recovered the crown in one of the greatest upsets in sports history; Mike Tyson, a latter day heavyweight champion; and Jim Brown; a star NFL running back, who also used his celebrity as an athlete to advance a political agenda. Then, there are Angelo Dundee, his long term trainer and mentor; business manager Gene Kilroy, his business manager; and photographer, Carl Fischer, who posed Ali as an arrow-riddled St. Sebastian for the cover of “Esquire.” These talking heads are well complemented by Ali’s family, his children, Maryum, Hana and Muhammad, Jr.; his brother Rahaman; and third wife Veronica.

The newly discovered archival material had never been intended for public consumption. Some are well below the industry standards for inclusion in a documentary. Even with the benefit of digital enhancement, the audio content is at times scratchy and even unintelligible.

What is their mitigating virtue? They capture Ali at his most unguarded. An exchange with young daughter, Hana, is particularly moving. At one juncture, he discloses his intention to come out of retirement and resume boxing. Alarmed, Hana pleads, “Don’t fight again. … You’re getting old!” Some critics will no doubt cavil that this film is entirely unnecessary, a redundant rehash of a well-documented story. However, this moment, memorializing a daughter’s genuine concern for her daddy, epitomize why this cynical castigation is off target.

The film captures what a controversial and polarizing figure Ali was. While Ali inspired the adulation of millions, he was reviled and demonized by others. In the context of the prevailing sociopolitical turmoil, Ali became a symbol of Black Pride and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Ali first secured the heavyweight title by knocking out Sonny Liston in a stunning upset. In the aftermath of the victory, Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and taken a Muslim name. The World Boxing Association responded by stripping Ali of the title.

I still remember how some politically conservative, old school sports writers studiously ignored the fact that Ali had converted to Islam and legally adopted a Muslim name. They pointedly insisted on continuing to use his birth name, Cassius Clay. This lapse of professionalism protested Ali’s decision to adopt a non-Christian faith, which espoused black separatism.

In 1967, Ali was drafted into the army. However, he refused to be inducted, claiming exemption as a conscientious objector and as a minister in the Nation of Islam. He publicly commented, “No Vietcong ever called me a n*****.”

The New York State Athletic Commission suspended Ali’s boxing license with other states following in quick succession. As a consequence, Ali was barred from pursuing his profession as a prize fighter for three and a half years.

A screen capture from the  "I Am Ali" movie trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5cf8nsZgYA

A screen capture from the “I Am Ali” movie trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5cf8nsZgYA

Ali was convicted of draft evasion. This launched an uphill appellate process, as formidable as any battle that Ali had ever waged in the ring. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction in an 8-0 decision with Justice Thurgood Marshall recusing. Many forget that the ultimate decision did not address the merits of whether Ali qualified for conscientious objector status. Instead, it relied on a technical error by the draft board, which had failed to specify a reason for its action.

The film reminds us of how courageous it was for Ali to refuse to be drafted. After all, Ali could have easily accepted induction and spent his tour of duty giving boxing exhibition and making celebrity appearances.  Instead, he made a principled decision, which had serious consequences.

In addition to chronicling Ali’s battles in and out of the ring, the film’s footage   amply demonstrates the enormous charisma that he exuded. The newly discovered material depicts the warm relationships that Ali cultivated with family members. The film reveals that Ali would invite his children of various mothers to collective family functions.

The film essentially ends with Ali’s last fight in 1981. In the interim, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and he has been out of the public eye. Once Ali was an outspoken critic of racism and governmental foreign policy. Now, he has been almost universally accepted as a popular cultural icon. How did this transformation take place? “I Am Ali” fails to account for it.

“I Am Ali” is a small budget film, which is fraught with problems, both technical and stylistic. It is hardly an essential addition to the canon of Ali films. However, Ali’s innate appeal and his fascinating life story makes the film well worth seeing.

*** PG (for thematic elements, mild language.) 111 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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