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May 2024
2min read


In 1962 a rising young heavyweight contender named Cassius Clay made his movie debut knocking out Anthony Quinn’s “Mountain” Rivera in the film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight . It was the first meeting in what would become a rocky relationship between film and the most famous athlete in history. Forty years later the films with and about Muhammad Ali practically rival the literature (and this doesn’t even include such Ali-inspired characters as Apollo Creed, of Rocky fame).

As Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s 2001 film Ali , now available on DVD, Will Smith gives off an infectious rhythm. Pumped up for the role—there’s at least 20 pounds of new muscle in that upper body, and all the muscles are long and smooth, like Ali’s when he was in his prime—Smith is given a new set of cheekbones and does a more than passable imitation of Ali’s unorthodox boxing techniques. He doesn’t really look like Ali, but who possibly could? Even Ali himself seemed to shrink in the role when he played himself in the 1977 film version of his ghostwritten autobiography, The Greatest . But like Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon, Smith is able to suggest a creature of Ali’s stature without coming off as an impressionist, and that’s the important thing. His performance is respectful and never really showoffy, which is actually a shame, because the person he is playing was perhaps the greatest natural showoff of our time. The only thing he lacks in the part, and this is equally true for the movie as a whole, is a sense of the surprise and spontaneity that hung around nearly everything Muhammad Ali ever did or said.

Ali is well written (by Erik Roth, Mann’s screenwriter for The Insider ) and covers most of the major events between Ali’s—that is, Cassius Clay’s—spectacular upset over Sonny Liston in 1964 and his equally spectacular upset over George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, with his joining the Black Muslims and his opposition to the war in Vietnam in between. There’s also a great deal of dramatic fillin that goes a long way toward suggesting, if not wholly illuminating, the inner man and his motives. What’s missing from Mann’s careful re-creation of these events is the true sense of amazement and outrage that Ali caused in the sixties and seventies. Are we too close to him in time, or too far away, to fully appreciate his impact?

For all its star power, Ali never succeeds at conveying the essence of Ali with the authority of Leon Gast’s Academy
Award-winning 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings (also available on DVD). The “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman was more than a boxing spectacular. It was a turning point in black pride, as two American champions with very different styles returned to the land of their ancestors and trained a worldwide spotlight on it. When We Were Kings documents this extraordinary event and puts Ali’s legend in perspective for a new generation.

The documentary started out as a film of a cross-cultural concert featuring prominent African groups as well as James Brown and B.B. King that was to precede the fight. But a six-week delay in the bout (to heal a cut Foreman got while sparring) opened up new opportunities for Gast, who came away with about 450 hours of footage of the fighters and the hype. He knew he had great material, but he didn’t realize what a treasure it was until the knockout.

Gast then waged a 20-year fight of his own to get the backing to finish the movie. In 1989 the music manager and film producer David Sonenberg came on board, and then the producer-editor Taylor Hackford, who shot new interviews with Spike Lee and the writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and helped shape the final edit. The result is a thrilling piece of work with appeal far beyond fight fans. “People have said to me,” Gast relates, “that they’ve never seen anything quite like When We Were Kings . I tell them, of course not, and because it’s about Muhammad Ali, you’ll never see anything like it again.

Allen Barra

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