Film

“Free Is Real, and Real Is a Motherfucker”: Michael Mann on Ali, 15 Years Later

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Last June, after the death of Muhammad Ali, Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring 2001 film Ali was briefly re-released in theaters. This allowed many of us to see it with fresh eyes. What felt like an ambitious but underwhelming biopic 15 years ago now seems more and more like a masterpiece — an immersive meditation on what it meant to be Muhammad Ali (who would have turned 75 today), and a portrait of a man attempting to forge his own identity in the crucible of the 1960s. Now, Mann’s film has just come out on Blu-ray, in a brand-new cut that makes its themes clearer and even adds some contemporary relevance. This new version of Ali feels both more political and more personal. I talked to Michael Mann about what prompted him to revisit the movie, along with his memories of making it.

This is, I think, the third cut of Ali that you’ve released. What made you want to go back in there and do a new edit?

What made me want to go back into it was time. It’s a different time. The original dealt with a number of evolving dynamics in Ali’s life. It was all kind of woven together: the political conflicts, his tumultuous romantic life, his identity quest. Who exactly was he going to be? He was a representational figure — and he was constructing that figure as he went through life. And in 2016 what I really wanted to see was somewhat different, which is that the biggest adversary Ali had was political. I wanted to strengthen that as the central conflict in the whole story. To my way of thinking, it makes everything more relevant — including the more intimate scenes, like his split with Belinda. It’s a process of expanding and compressing. I couldn’t even tell you if this film is longer or shorter than the theatrical release.

I noticed more political and historical context in there. For example, we see the execution of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.

Yeah. I wanted to make that tangible. In the earlier visit to Africa, when Ali bumps into Malcolm, there was a lot of work done there to really connect the dots and make associations play in a much clearer way. And to show the death of Lumumba — even though it’s a historical shift, because Lumumba got killed I think in ‘61. I wonder if people get it that the general who, after Lumumba is killed, walks into that room full of other military guys and says, “It’s done. C’est fait. It’s done.” I wonder if they get that that’s Mobutu.

Probably not, but I’m still glad you included it. Structurally, it also helps set up the scene later, with Idi Amin and Mobutu watching the Foreman fight.

And you couldn’t make that up. The fight was only televised in one house in Zaire, and that was the palace, and Mobutu’s dinner guest was Idi Amin!

The killing of Lumumba also resonates with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King that we see later in the film.

The operations of FBI, COINTELPRO, and the CIA — their true connected assault on Ali is because of his race politics and his position against the war and because of how dangerous he was. It’s like Cosell says, “All they are is political. You’re the heavyweight champion of the world.” So, all that just focused the drama for me in a much better way. Suddenly things clicked. I put back in an extra press conference in Africa; I dropped out the Cleveland Williams fight.

I think you cut out the Ernie Terrell fight, too.

Yeah. I was trying to enhance the transformational moment — which for me happens when Ali is in Kinshasa and is running in the favelas and comes upon the murals, in which he realizes what he’s come to represent to everybody rising up from below. He represents every form of aspiration. He can cure sleeping sickness, he can fight off repressive militaries, he can knock out George Foreman. He represents possibility. And that was coming from eleven-year-old kids — eleven-year-old kids did that mural, by the way. That is really the quintessence of the mantle that he wears willingly. It’s not something that’s imposed upon him. “I get to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be.” And he’s essentially saying, “I know that I am representational, and so I have an obligation, because I’m walking into that ring, and people’s hopes and aspirations are with me.”

It’s also what fuels him in the fight, particularly in the Foreman fight. Also, his argument with Belinda before he runs into the murals — I flipped the order of those scenes. That became an obvious improvement. She doubts him, when they’re talking in their compound in N’Sele, on the banks of the Congo River. That doubt undermines him and we understand the split. But it’s not really about the breakup of his second marriage; it’s about fighting Foreman and that quest for living out his identity.

Here’s a question for you: Did you feel at the end of this that it had a more coherent embrace of a near-religious identification of Ali as a representational figure — this idea that he’s a figure of the masses, and that there’s a connection that he’s feeling at the end of the Foreman fight — compared to the theatrical version?

I think that’s always come through. It may be a little clearer here because, for example, I noticed on his way to the Foreman fight, you added some footage of people on the street at night cheering him on. Whereas before, we just saw him alone in the car. I think Mailer talks about this in The Fight, this lonely car ride Ali took to the fight. But now, seeing these people there by the side of the road gives you the sense, especially after the earlier scene of him running with all those people following him, that these people haven’t left, they’re still there cheering him on.

I’m still struck by how much this film, more than a “biopic,” feels like an essay about Ali and about his own struggle to find a way to be free from all these other things. I noticed something else in here that wasn’t in the theatrical cut, though it was in the longer cut you later released on DVD: The shots of him watching his dad sign the contract allowing him to be owned as a boxer by the Louisville syndicate. It’s there in that opening montage right after we see Dad painting the white Jesus. I thought that was an inspired juxtaposition.

It wasn’t in the theatrical, but it had to be there; it should have been there. That’s why I restored it. The film is a very ambitious undertaking. Some people will say it wasn’t that successful, but it’s still a very ambitious undertaking: I wanted to put you in the shoes, looking through the eyes, in the skin of Muhammad Ali in 1964, of Cassius Clay in ’63, ‘64. Obviously, there’s no point in doing this expositionally. I wanted to do it experientially, to get people to feel what it is to be a colonized people in their own country, living under the yoke of a white value system.

The dislocation, as it appears to nine-year-old Cassius Clay, of seeing his father painting a white, blond, blue-eyed Jesus in a black Baptist church. Or the confusing de facto apartheid of the Border South of Louisville. Being black in Alabama and Mississippi is a rougher experience, but maybe not as confusing. But Louisville’s confusing. Right across the river, you’re in the North. So there are these “colored-only” drinking fountains, but people are polite. But the value system is the same: He had an uncle who was a very, very bright guy, college educated, could only get a job as a window washer, and eventually committed suicide.

Ali came from an accomplished, bright family, and in looking for explanations for the contradictions that he’s living in, he starts reading Muhammad Speaks, probably in 1959, 1960, 1961. So he knew who Patrice Lumumba was, because in the inside section of Muhammad Speaks there was a lot of news about the third world, about Nkrumah in Ghana, and about events in the Congo.

So the whole Sam Cooke medley is an attempt to bring you into that place, and the genius of the counterassault against the culture of imperialism — “black is beautiful.” It’s like a counterpunch, which is maybe an unfortunate analogy. But that’s what Ali embraces. To bring you into a movie about his quest for the ultimate manifestation of who he is, that’s where it begins. And then the transformational moment, for me, is the murals in Kinshasa, and then the full occupation of his identity is that moment in triumph at the very end of the film.

The scene where he’s running in Kinshasa and sees those murals — it’s one of the most powerful scenes you’ve ever directed.

I talked to Ali about it a little bit, but I also think I read it in Norman Mailer’s The Fight, where Ali talks about how he would run in the morning with all kinds of security around him and then he’d just split off and go into these other areas. So that’s where that idea came from. Also, instead of signage, there’s a lot of pictograms in Africa. Like, there’ll be a picture of somebody dressing somebody’s hair painted on a wall instead of the word “hairdresser.” So it’s common, you know.

What was Ali’s response to the film?

I think it’s probably complicated. I don’t know that there is one answer. You know, he was around the whole time. He wasn’t in Africa because he couldn’t fly, but pre-production he was there all the time, through shooting, at 5th St. Gym in Miami. And then he was there in editing quite a bit. He and [photographer] Howard Bingham, who sadly died a couple weeks ago, would come by the editing room all the time. At the premiere I was sitting right behind Ali and his family, and he was catching all kinds of looks from his daughters. [Laughs]

But he could walk into a location in Miami, and the 5th St. Gym is re-created. We’ve made it live again: It’s a functioning gym, not just a set. So, he’s being transported back into his life with a high degree of authenticity, and that brings back a lot of things. So I don’t think there’s a simple answer to it. Early on, he told me that he wanted the film to not sugarcoat anything. He didn’t want hagiography. He was opposed to any kind of idolatry and felt it diminished him as a man. Mistakes and all, he wanted everything in. I asked him at one point, “What’s the biggest mistake you think you made?” and he said it was not repairing the relationship with Malcolm X, who he truly loved.

Toward the end of the shooting, when we were in Miami, I had Attallah Shabazz, who was working with us on the film, and it was kind of freaky when she walked into a room because she looked like the female Malcolm X. You know, light-complected, red hair, she looked just like her father. I asked Ali, “Attallah Shabazz is working with us, did you want to meet her?” He did, and they actually arranged a meeting, and he was very emotional. He told her how much he loved her father, and regretted not mending that relationship. Because shortly after Ali rejected him, Malcolm was assassinated.

Was there a particular quality in Will Smith at the time that made you think that he could be the one to do this?

Well, he had the project before I was involved. I had to come up with a kind of program for him to be Ali, because his main question was, “How do I make myself into Muhammad Ali?” Now, what’s motivating Will and what’s motivating me are different, but it was a ferocious ambition. Will was 33 then, and if he was ever going to play this gigantic figure, it was going to have to be right about that time. For me, I’m one year younger than Ali, and the rage that Ali felt at the Birmingham bombings, and at footage on CBS from the war on Vietnam in ’67, on the six o’clock news on a Tuesday night, was the rage that I felt.

The politics of that period were very different from the politics of the ‘90s. I mean, Fred Hampton gets murdered because he’s dangerous. Why is he dangerous? Because he’s forming alliances with the anti-war movement, with La Raza Unida, and with poor whites, particularly Appalachians living on Wilson and Broadway in Chicago. And that makes him dangerous. When Malcolm is talking to Martin Luther King, that makes him dangerous. The politics of the ‘60s … it was a war.

But the spirit, the ambition, and the commitment that Will had, and the artistry … I knew he could do it. And we didn’t kid ourselves about the degree of difficulty involved in it, and not just the boxing. The boxing was just one part, eight months of training, including some ridiculous stuff — some very esoteric work with the guy who was the chief of [the] Division of Sports Medicine at UCLA, who was a physician for the U.S. Olympic team. And reflex training, because you could not get down the head and shoulder things that Ali did. Ali moved like a welterweight, but he hit like a heavyweight.

And [Ali’s trainer] Angelo Dundee was around during pre-production quite a bit in the boxing training, along with Darrell Foster, Michael Olajide, and Michael Bentt, who played Sonny Liston. Angelo would say something to him, “Will, Will, Will, you’re zigging; you gotta be zagging!” I don’t know what that meant, but after he said it, you know, something improved. Along with that was, you know, meetings with Islamic scholars from UCLA, the difference between the Nation of Islam and traditional Islam. Spending time with Geronimo Pratt, who was a Black Panther who was wrongly convicted of a murder, spent 25 years in San Quentin, was finally exonerated. Leon Gast gave me some really terrific outtakes to look at from When We Were Kings. He was amazingly helpful.

And the dialect! Ali was a master. When we would analyze how he spoke with some of these rhyming couplets — this kind of rap that he did — we really started to realize he’s taking three different parts and he’s dropping into three different regional accents within the same set of lyrics. At one point he’s doing kind of Southern folklore, and then he’s suddenly being an omniscient narrator, and then he’s back again. So, there was so much to do, and Will was there with complete dedication. You can’t have a better partner in life than Will Smith. I can’t say enough good things about him.

You also went on to make several films with Jamie Foxx, and since then obviously we’ve all come to appreciate what a great actor he is. But at the time most of us knew him as a comic performer, and he was a revelation in this film. What was it about him that struck you as right for Bundini Brown?

I think comedy is genius. Jamie Foxx on In Living Color is just … to me, it’s like Einstein. He’s brilliant in ways that Jonathan Winters could be brilliant. I just had a feeling that he could be Bundini like nobody else could. We did a couple of auditions. At one, in my office, he did the most important Bundini scene in the whole movie, which is in the flophouse, where he says, “Free ain’t easy. Free is real, and real’s a motherfucker.”

And Ali’s guttural reaction against a man sinking that deep into self-loathing was totally understandable: Within Ali’s cultural politics and real politics and race politics, it’s anathema that you allow yourself to sink that deep. Anyway, we did that scene in my office, and Jamie just, in that one moment, he just killed it and that was it. And we wound up doing that film, and then Collateral and Miami Vice. Jamie’s brilliant. He’s a complex, brilliant man.

That moment, “Free is real, and real is a motherfucker,” that to me is kind of the key to the movie in so many ways.

It is. And that’s also a key line because it got us an R rating. That word. “Motherfucker.” That’s an R rating. They literally said, “If you change it, you can call him a ‘fucker,’ but if you insist on ‘motherfucker’ it has to be an R rating.” You know, it was crazy. And I got people like Cornel West to write letters saying, “Wait a minute, this standard is racist. ‘Fucker’ is okay, but ‘motherfucker’ is not okay?” That’s a word that is in black culture, in a parlance, and that’s a word he would use and that’s authentic. And it moved Jack Valenti — who I otherwise liked and got along with — not at all.

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