Sting Like A Bee

Michael Mann's portrayal of Ali's life leaves lots of questions unanswered.

What do you know about Muhammad Ali? If it’s next to nothing, you’d better yourself get an education before you decide to take in this flick.

In 1964, Ali was already famous. He was a champion boxer with a massive fan following, and powerful friends. But you don’t know that. Because this is where the curtain rises.

Born Cassius Clay, a black man living a nightmare in 60’s America, where the "niggers" were the ones that got the back seats on a bus and the ones that got lynched to death, Clay was no stranger to the system. He watched it all happen, and learned his lessons, allowing his emotion to spit fire through the one sport he made his own. He trained hard, skillfully socked it in the ring, and slowly climbed the ranks to win the World Boxing Association Championship, in 1964, defeating Sonny Liston. Where your story begins. The day after, he publicly announced his conversion to Islam. And that wasn’t all he made public.

His wit and charm were unrivalled in the ring, and using this he asserted his largeness. He was no longer to be called by the name of his ancestors, because it was a slave name. He was to be a champion of the people. Not in the way they wanted him to be, but the way he chose.  He was to do as he pleased, because he was self-made.

And while he expostulated and exalted his own greatness, he divided his fans, and multiplied his enemies. Propelled solely by a force of his own, Ali rode down his opponents by incisive remarks and a tamed ferocity. On refusing to be inducted into the US Army to fight the Vietnam War, his boxing license was revoked, and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment and a fine. The US was perhaps his heaviest opposition and the battle that followed, the most onerous. The years that he was denied his game were his ripest, and by the time he landed the government its falling blow, he was older, heavier, and already two wives down. He’s now got to reclaim his stolen title, remake his profits and assert his superior blood. Which is precisely what he goes on to do!

Counting ten whole years to 1974, this is where the film closes. Where Ali is to fight George Foreman in what is to be called the "Rumble In The Jungle", an event with high monetary stakes and a wager on the title. It’s the tailpiece that warrants a dramatic close on the stopwatch.  In Zaire, where the match is to take place, Ali discovers his true greatness in the idolizing chants of the locals, in the masses that gather for a glimpse, and finally, in crude chalk images of himself on village walls. He knows that he is beyond himself, that he has become the revolutionary that was Malcom X (Mario Van Peebles), that was Luther King; that he has succeeded in asserting his right, and for this alone, he is the champion of the people.

It’s a volcanic assemblage of talent, photography, direction and sound. Will Smith (from "Men In Black") as Ali, wears the skin of his idol so well, you’ve got to watch him to know how hard he’s worked at this. Possibly the closest you’ll get to seeing the real thing, he’s got Ali’s voice, mannerisms and intensity down to a capital T. A soundtrack that embraces R&B, soul and Afrikaans amplifies the emotion constructing every scene, while the director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, superbly uses lighting to great effect, giving it the haze inherent to the age. And Michael Mann (director of "The Insider"), does a fairly decent job in capturing more than a few rare scenes that lend this film its potency.

When making films such as these, you’ve got to know where you stand, and know the kind of film you’re crafting. "Ali" doesn’t want to eulogize a legend. It tells him like he is, in order to give you an education of the type you’d never hope to get otherwise. And in doing that, teaches you a thing or two about the giants of the past.

This article was first published on 14 Mar 2002.