Here’s a chance to reassess a movie that disappointed many during its initial release. The death of Muhammad Ali has understandably led to a revival of many of the films made about the legendary boxer — among them Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring 2001 biopic, Ali, currently back in theaters across the country and on HBO Go through July. I didn’t care for it much back in 2001, finding it a slow, incoherent slog enlivened by a couple of lovely scenes and some energetic performances — Smith’s, certainly, but also Jamie Foxx’s touching turn as cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown and Jon Voight’s dead-on impression of sportscaster Howard Cosell. As a fan of Mann’s work, I’ve returned to it over the years, but it wasn’t until I saw Ali again on a big screen last week that it all finally clicked. This time, I was overwhelmed by Mann’s film. It may be one of the most unique historical dramas of the past several decades — more a filmed essay than an attempt at re-creation.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have plenty of verisimilitude. Mann’s attention to detail and Smith’s dedication to his role immerse us in the mood of the 1960s and early ’70s, in the sights, sounds, and cadences of the era; not a hairstyle or shirt or piece of wallpaper seems out of place. Mann, Smith, and their team also get the fight choreography right — from Ali’s lightning-quick footwork to the burst of sweat that explodes off an exhausted George Foreman’s head when Ali finally lands some real punches near the end of their title bout in Zaire.
But it’s clear from the opening moments that the movie is after something more. As the young singer Sam Cooke (David Elliott) takes a nightclub stage in 1964, we get a fleet-footed medley of glimpses from Ali’s life and a divided America, hopping back and forth in time. We see Ali jogging at night, briefly accosted by two cops on patrol. We see him as a child, walking to the back of a segregated public bus and catching a newspaper headline about the gruesome murder of Emmett Till; this is poignantly juxtaposed with an image of Cooke playfully flirting with one of the women in his audience. Ali watches Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) speak out against “turning the other cheek,” hears Sonny Liston promise him he’ll “beat your ass like I was your daddy,” and observes his own father (Giancarlo Esposito) painting white Jesus figures in churches — and signing away his son’s professional career to a collective of Louisville businessmen. All this happens in the opening fifteen or so minutes. And all along, Cooke sings, dances, chats up the ladies in the crowd — the remarkable dexterity with which his band changes tempo and tone echoed by the film’s flow of images and incidents. This foreshadows the jazzy energy of what would become Ali’s own personal style. But the Greatest isn’t there yet; for now, Mann cuts repeatedly to Ali punching a speed-bag, the boxer’s face a mask of quiet determination. For all of Smith’s physical transformation and passion, his performance is at its most beautiful when he’s simply observing and absorbing everything around him.
When I discussed these scenes with Mann earlier this year, he said he wanted “to try and drop you into what it is to be Ali…to experience the contradiction of growing up black in white America, and the cultural imperialism imposed as white values.” And so we see how the violence, anger, and hurt all around Ali fueled his aggressive playfulness and performative style: As soon as the montage ends, he bursts into his weigh-in with Liston, Bundini at his side. Finally, the fighter’s demeanor changes, from solemn and reflective to light, funny, extroverted. The music comes to a stop, drowned out by Ali’s boisterous poetry: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!” Everything has been building to this.
The contained back-and-forth of these early passages plays itself out on a broader scale throughout the film, as incidents and impressions from Ali’s life collide with and inform one another. Ali tells Malcolm X about the day he learned of Till’s death, and Malcolm speaks of the impotence he felt in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, had banned him from speaking out, so Malcolm had to quell his fury: “My muscles seized…my leg gave out. All I wanted to do was find something and break it.” If Malcolm’s body seizes up from his inability to speak out, Ali’s body becomes an expressive instrument. This is part of the aesthetic strategy of the film. Extended passages of melancholy, silence, and subdued anger give rise to bursts of poetry and physicality.
At the same time, Mann is subtle but clear in the way he shows Ali’s growing ability to manipulate the media, to play dumb while demonstrating an almost supernatural self-awareness. You sense it in his rejection of the draft. (“Yeah, I know where Vietnam is. It’s on TV. Southeast Asia? It’s there, too?”) You sense it also in his interactions with Cosell, as when he playfully threatens to pull the sportscaster’s toupee off on live TV. Ali is a man playing a part who knows he’s playing a part…but also wants to lay bare the artifice and make it clear that everyone else around him is also playing a part.
That almost postmodern quality extends to Mann’s visual palette. The director has spoken of how he discovered the possibilities of digital video during production, impressed by the “truth-telling style” of the technology. Most of Ali is shot in 35mm, but the digital shots interspersed throughout clearly jump out: They’re darker, pixelated, but also more immediate. When Mann and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use video, it’s often in over-the-shoulder shots, or other ways that replicate what the protagonist is seeing and experiencing in that instant, as when he looks out at the sky over Chicago and sees fires burning in the distance, or as he jogs alone at night, or in the heat of a fight. But along with this immediacy comes a kind of abstraction. Such shots may put us in the moment, but they also pull us out of our cinematic reverie, almost breaking the fourth wall — a stylistic corollary to what Ali was doing with his very persona.
Even those unimpressed with Mann’s film generally admit that it has two brilliant sections — that opening Sam Cooke medley and a later lengthy scene of Ali jogging before his fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, as he’s slowly encircled by throngs of people who chant, “Ali bumaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”). These sequences are two sides of the same coin: If that opening montage shows how Ali processed the anger of the world around him into something poetic and bitterly playful, the later one shows the complicated swirl of emotions emerging from the love and affection of the masses who idolized him. The jogging scenes are not jubilant, despite the cheering Africans surrounding the boxer. When Ali comes upon a rough wall-drawing depicting him as a larger-than-life figure — shown taking down everything from Foreman to military jets — there’s a clear disconnect between the man and the myth. That image is an ideal to which he knows he will never live up, but he’s clearly moved and awed by it. There’s a profound loneliness to Ali at this point, and it’s carried through to the final fight with Foreman.
One of Mann’s sources for Ali was Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, an excellent book that, like the film, contemplates Ali’s complex relationship with the public and the politics of his era. Marqusee writes: “Ali liked to say he found ‘strength’ in ‘the love of the people.’ That was more than poetic license. By some complex psychological process, he brought this love into the ring with him, and converted it into strength. He turned the burden of representation into an inexhaustible reserve of patience and determination.” The author, who also wrote a book about Bob Dylan and the Sixties (Chimes of Freedom), compares and contrasts Ali with Dylan, describing how the songwriter, troubled by that “burden of representation,” eventually sought to shed his status as counterculture icon. Ali was also troubled by the weight of everything he came to stand for. But he took a different path, finding independence in the way he crafted his own unique persona.
So there’s another element to Ali — a ghost in the machine that courses throughout the film. Ali the man desires to be free. But the meaning of that word slowly changes. (“Free ain’t easy,” Bundini says. “Free is real. And real’s a motherfucker.”) Ali seeks freedom not just from the reality of America, but also from everything else with dominion over him. He finds this freedom in the construction of his ever-changing, ever-moving identity. (“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”) In essence, he liberates himself by becoming larger than anything that ever tried to control him — larger than the Nation of Islam, larger than the media, or boxing, or even, ultimately, America itself.