November 11, 2014 — The movie, “I am Ali” is a touching, well-varnished multimedia scrapbook of remembrances of Muhammad Ali, the larger than life heavyweight boxing champion. At times amber hued, others grainy black and white, it’s a montage of recollections of reporters, family members, former opponents, contemporaries and those close to Ali, juxtaposed with current footage of those being interviewed. Replete with photos, period music, home movies and newsreel footage, it conveys the spirt of the times, as well as the man, to great effect.
It opens with a joking, 20-something Cassius Clay wearing a suit and tie on a black and white TV game show, then and cuts to a taped telephone conversation years later with one of his daughters, Maryum Ali, who exhorts him not to fight because he’s “too old” at 37 to attempt to win the heavyweight title for a fourth time.
Marym later shares about Ali’s love of recording conversations for posterity’s sake. As a result, the viewer is treated to candid samplings that weave their way deliciously throughout the movie to paint a more rounded portrait of a loving father, loving friend and, occasionally, wise sage.
His former business manager Gene Kilroy, a fixture throughout, weighs in on working with Ali and first meeting him at the Olympics. He plays back a cassette tape of a conversation with Ali.
Ali’s brother, Rahman, shares some of his experiences with Ali while driving threw their old Louisville neighborhood where they grew up. He reminisces how as a youth, Ali dodged rocks thrown at him and how years later, he used those same honed reflexes in the ring, calling him “a genius.”
Officer Joe Martin talks about working with the police boxing program that spawned Ali’s start in boxing. His late longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee, takes the baton from there, sharing how upon meeting Ali, he was incessantly grilled by his young charge and how, later, he advised the members of Cloverlay, the group of rich men that sponsored Ali’s transition into the pro ranks.
He shares how when Ali fought the quicker Doug Jones, Dundee caved into media pressure and told him to get his hands up. Ali took punishment as a result, he claims, so he tells him, “Put your hands back down!”
“No big man moved like him,” he marvels.
Significantly, when Dundee speaks of Ali’s first fight with Henry Cooper — when Ali was caught with a wicked left hook — as black and white footage rolls of the knockdown, he fails to mention how he gave invaluable recovery to a groggy Ali by ripping open a small tear in Ali’s glove. That’s disappointing and hints at a larger issue: if you are looking for a piece that looks critically at Muhammad Ali’s career or personal life, you’re not going to get that here. It’s more of a survey piece, painting in broader strokes, focusing more on his personality, touching on some key points, but lighting — and quickly moving on — when dealing with the negatives.
Nevertheless, the viewer gets a sense of the surreal nature of growing up in the Ali household. His daughter, Maryum, talks about Ali being loved by the crowds and seeing celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. on TV and then seeing them at their house later.
She talks about his being a doting father and a jokester and her being a “daddy’s girl.” A prime example emerges moments later in home footage of him waiting on his wife, Belinda, to fix dinner. “There’s a few things you don’t mess with — colored people’s food and colored peoples money!” Ali quips.
One poignant conversation with Maryum speaks volumes of his character as a father:
“Maryum, you’re eleven years old,” he says. “Now do you want to go to college?”
“Yes, sir,” she replies.
“Now, what do you want to do? Everything Allah made has a purpose. Trees have a purpose. What’s the purpose of a cow?”
“To give us milk,” she replies.
“OK. What’s the purpose of the sun?”
“To give us light and heat,” she responds.
“And make things grow,” he says. “So everything God made, the cows, the horses, the moon, the stars, ants, everything has a purpose. Now, what’s your purpose?”
The movie takes us through his high and low points, such as his winning the world heavyweight title versus Sonny Liston. Journalist Ken Jones notes that after 19 fights, it’s very clear Dundee is an expert matchmaker in maneuvering him to the championship.
Later, during his ban from boxing for his refusal to fight in Viet Nam, there’s a touching taped conversation with his daughter, explaining his exile.
Jim Brown, the all-time great football running back, talks about Ali as a contemporary black athlete. He speaks about Ali’s role in the Black Rights movement, and marvels, “He didn’t dislike white people; he just disliked what some white people stood for.”
Carl Fischer, a photographer who does a photo shoot for Esquire magazine depicting Ali as a martyr with mock arrows protruding from his torso, marvels at Ali’s keen intelligence.
It’s not all gloss and glitz, though; for all his strengths, he had a darker side. His former wife, Monica Porche, with whom he’d infamously hooked up while in Zaire for his fight with George Foreman (while still married to Belinda) speaks in glowing terms about him taking control of his life by making predictions and becoming accountable for fulfilling them, but also acknowledges that he was ultimately difficult to live with because he wasn’t a faithful husband.
Then there’s Marvis Frazier, son of Ali’s late and magnificent foil, Joe Frazier, who talks about their legendary rivalry and how Ali hurt him deeply with highly publicized comments about Joe being “ugly”, “a gorilla”and an Uncle Tom — all this after Frazier had helped him during his boxing hiatus.
“He was always Ali…he’d just turn it up a notch in public,” his daughter, Hana Ali, sums up.
Warts and all — yes, he was, and this movie conveys this very well in an intimate way.
The movie, “I Am Ali,” was released today on Digital HD Blu Ray DVD. Copyright 2014 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.