Few people on the planet have ever been as good at anything as Muhammad Ali was at boxing; fewer still have the outsized charisma to match that talent. It doesn’t seem much of an overstatement to say that The Greatest is also one of the more fascinating men of our age, nor is it much of a surprise that yet another movie has been made about him. Clare Lewins’s I Am Ali seeks to differentiate itself from such predecessors as Jim Jacobs’s a.k.a. Cassius Clay and Michael Mann’s Ali via an unprecedented level of archival footage and recordings — if you’ve been dying to hear the three-time heavyweight champion have endearingly mundane telephone conversations with his wife and kids, this is the documentary for you.
It’s unfortunate that, even with this wealth of uncovered materials, I Am Ali still plays as a greatest-hits version of its subject’s life, offering little depth or insight into any one element of it. There’s no real cohesion, much less any sort of underlying thesis beyond “Muhammad Ali is interesting, and here’s some rare footage.” The question of why this exact movie should have been made now is never broached, much less answered.
As in most Ali films, the most revealing segments focus on his refusal to enlist in the military — and his insistence that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam and kill people he had no quarrel with. (Lewins opts not to include Ali’s still piercingly poignant declaration that “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.”) Such conviction, and it speaks to the force of Ali’s personality that watching him vehemently defend his beliefs proves even more engaging than watching him go toe-to-toe with Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.
A great many interviewees — including fans, family members, and opponents — sing his praises. Several reinforce the idea of Ali’s in-ring triumphs as almost incidental when taking stock of him as a man: “Boxing was just something he did,” says George Foreman, “that’s no way to define Muhammad Ali.” How then to do so? Lewins never takes a direct stab at this question, either, instead allowing the details that shine through in grainy home-video footage and interviews with Ali’s children to paint a more comprehensive portrait.
Conspicuous in his absence is Ali himself, who’s now been fighting Parkinson’s for a full three decades. We know his past already, and it’s perhaps out of reverence for the man and his legacy that no real inquiry is made into his present — his disease is mentioned only in passing by his ex-wife and one of his daughters — but this only makes I Am Ali feel almost intentionally incomplete. The result is a documentary that moves along with a purposelessness unbefitting the man who floated like a butterfly; worse yet, it also lacks his sting.
Directed by Clare Lewins.