Jan 21, 2002
Ali, the movie biography of Muhammad Ali now out in theaters, provides a very good portrayal of the athlete who took militant stances against racism and the U.S. war in Vietnam. The movie stars Will Smith as Ali, Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, and Jamie Foxx as Ali’s trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown who all contribute good acting performances. The music of Motown and Sam Cooke provide a good backdrop and a sense of the excitement of the times.
The film gives some hints about experiences that contributed to Ali’s political awareness. It shows how as a youngster he and his father had to move to the back of the bus, while white passengers rode up front and some seats were left empty. It also depicts his reaction to newspaper stories about Emmett Till, the black youth who was lynched in horrific fashion for talking to a white woman during a visit he made to Mississippi.
The movie also tells of Ali’s attraction to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. It gives a hint of the media’s opposition to him when he began to take political stands, through an exchange with Howard Cosell. Cosell admits he is wrong when he continues to refer to Ali as Cassius Clay, the name that Ali was born with but rejected as the name given to his family by slave owners. It portrays both his personal friendship with Malcolm X and his break with him, when Elijah Muhammad censured Malcolm. And it gives a glimpse of Malcolm X’s assassination and Ali’s reaction to that.
The film is particularly strong in its depiction of Ali’s refusal to join the fight of the U.S. against the Vietnamese people. It quotes Ali when he says, “I got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” In his trial for refusing the draft, Ali states that he doesn’t understand why he should go thousands of miles to fight for “American freedom” when others won’t fight for his freedom here at home.
We also see in the film the price that Ali paid for his stance; his bout with poverty when he is not allowed to fight. Ali lost three years during the prime of his boxing career as a result of the government’s attack on him. And it also gives a sense of the excitement generated in the black population by his return to boxing and his heavyweight championship fight with Joe Frazier, who won the championship while Ali was out of boxing. It also does a good job of showing other fights, like his early bouts with Sonny Liston and his recapturing of the heavyweight title from George Foreman in Zaire.
This is not just a movie about Ali the boxer, although the fight scenes are very realistic and intense. It does not show Ali in a vacuum. Rather, the film attempts to show the controversies and complexities that existed in Ali’s relationship to the Nation of Islam, to Malcolm, to several women in his life and to the black movement.
At the same time, the movie dances over the reactionary side of the Nation of Islam in that period as it discouraged open opposition to the U.S. war, although the movie does hint at it.
The Nation was opposed to Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Armed Forces. They demonstrated their opposition by expelling him from the Nation. As the movie shows, this was not the reason they gave. They claimed the reason was because Ali was too concerned with boxing and winning. If that had been true, he would not have stood up to the U.S. government, a stand which cost Ali so much. And when his conviction was overturned, and he could fight and make money again, one of the sons of Elijah Muhammad approached Ali, offering to accept him back – and be his manager.
The strengths of this film are its portrayal of Ali’s convictions and courage in refusing to fight and “kill poor people in another country.”