“I Am Ali” is a new documentary about the life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, as told by the people who knew him best: his friends and family.
We were able to participate in a roundtable discussion with the director of the film, Clare Lewins, and two of Ali’s daughters, Hana Ali and Maryum Ali. Here are some highlights:
What inspired you to make this documentary?
CLARE LEWINS: I’ve always been fascinated by Muhammad Ali. I made a film for the BBC, called My Best Friend about Muhammad Ali, a few years ago, and [his former manager] Gene Kilroy was the best friend, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. So, when it was Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party, Gene said, “Would I like to come?” And I said, “Well, I’d really love to make a really good documentary about him, a real proper documentary, and just, if I could, get to the people who knew him really well, the family, and just find out why he is so special and so beloved.” And Gene said, “Well, I hope you do that.” Because, obviously, I’m not a big name in the boxing world. Gene opened doors for me, really, and that’s where I met Hana and Maryum and I made the film.
What prompted your father to start recording the audiotapes? Are there some we haven’t even heard?
HANA: Oh, there’s like 80 to 87 recordings, and they’re all about an hour long. There’s twelve minutes in the film. So there’s a lot, you know? […] It’s like the world’s first reality show. He’s documenting what’s going on in his life behind the scenes: Him as a parent; him opening the lines of communication, you know, in Iran and Tehran when they were hunting hostages […] in 1979. All different stuff. So I think he was just trying to document his own legacy, record his own legacy, and his legacy as a father, and us, and our moments, our special moments as children, so that we all just sort of have that to cherish later in life. He’s always valuing time and the passage of time, and we were all very conscious of that since we were little kids, that time is going to fly by, before you know it you’re going to be old. So he had a natural value for that, and loved the beauty of everyday living.
MARYUM: Yeah, he has documented himself since he was younger. I mean, when he was twelve he got started boxing, and he did […] a local Louisville show of local boxers, and he was recorded then, and he was recorded before the Olympics, during the Olympics, and so he was used to history being recorded. He valued that. He didn’t underestimate that, and he kind of imparted that, like Hana said, to us, always, always conscious of time and how fleeting it is and how fast it goes by. Before Facebook, before Twitter, before all this stuff, he knew: Record all these things.
HANA: And so much is happening behind the scenes that I learned about in the audios, and I think my father knew, and says it, that so much happening and the world doesn’t know about it. So he wanted to take people on that journey with him. And what’s so amazing about it is this is the last of his vocal legacy before his voice was going out, and in later recordings you can hear that.
MARYUM: And I was telling my sister: He gave away everything. He gave away gloves, he gave away belts. The kids don’t have anything, because he gave everything away. If you were his best buddy: “Oh, Ali, I like that—“ “Oh, here.” But this is the only thing he wouldn’t give away. And he gave them to Hana because he really didn’t want anyone to have these tapes but his family. And I’m really happy that this is the one thing he wanted his kids to have. It’s special.
What was it like growing up with someone so iconic as a father?
HANA: It was a different experience for both of us.
MARYUM: Totally two different experiences. My experience was … When I was little, he was a very famous, I mean he’s always been very famous, but he was boxing right at that time. I remember when Ken Norton broke his jaw, and he had his jaw wired shut. And the Joe Frazier fight. There were some death threats on the family. Of course nothing ever happened, thank God, but there were little kids who I could tell had racist parents who didn’t like my father, and they would come to school calling me the “n-word” and stuff like that. So I caught a little of that stuff, the controversial Ali and how the kids had to grow with that. But luckily my father gave me the tools to deal with that. I stuck up for myself; I wouldn’t allow anybody to bully me; I knew how to stand up for my religious beliefs. […] But the, the great side: People’s love for my dad showered upon me. “I love your father, I love your family. We watched you guys grow up.” I saw the good and the bad. Some of the bad when I’m really little with maybe people of other races, other religions, but always African-Americans: “Oh, your father fought for us, and stood up for what was right and stood up for equality.” So I saw kind of all those different areas of people. But I had a great upbringing; I wouldn’t change it for the world. It made me a very wise woman, being his daughter.
HANA: Well, my dad had to instill a lot of humility in me growing up, because I knew he was special early on, and would go around: “My daddy’s Muhammad Ali!” You know, so he’d have to sit me down and say, “Hana, you know, you’re the world—“ It’s bad, it was bad — I’m like five years old, six years old, because I remember just watching and going through the airports with him and watching these people clapping and applauding as we walk down the terminal. I remember this feeling of euphoria, just hearing all the thunderous applause as he’s just walking down or rushing to our plane. Then we’d get on the plane, and he’d give his seat up so that someone else could sit in first class, and we’d take the coach seats. That happened so many times, squished in the back of the plane, going through turbulence. But my dad would have to sit me down and tell me a lot, and he did with all of us, but really a lot to me when I was really young that: “Nothing makes you better than anybody else in this world but your heart. Nothing else. And the world is going to treat you better; you’re going to have a lot of privileges because of how famous I am. And just like you go to school and you learn about reading and science and math, you’ve got to work hard to keep your spirit humble.” And he ingrained these things in us, because he didn’t just tell you things once — he would tell you all the time so it’d stick with you. And then he would live it, and you would see that unfold in his everyday life and his everyday actions. Laila and I would come home and give our money away to homeless people, our allowance, and we thought it was fun because we watched our father do it. […]
How long did it take to find the structure of the film? Were there any sort of influences or philosophies you had when determining that?
CLARE: Well, it’s a good question — I was always very adamant that it wasn’t just a film about boxing, because I don’t really know anything about boxing, but I was fascinated by him as a man. So, I thought if I could get to the people that knew him, so that’s why in my notebook I was thinking I want the daughters (you know, I wrote it), I want the trainer… Actually this is a really simple way of collating the information, in a way, and that kind of worked for structure. And I remember Universal saying — they saw the first rough cut of it — and they said, “Oh, we’d like to see up at the front more.” Because it started off with the Cadillac coming out of the desert, and you don’t actually see his face for about a minute. You just heard his voice. And I said, “Well, I don’t want to have him just saying, ‘I’m the greatest, I’m the greatest,’ because every boxing film starts like that.” That’s when I had the idea, I saw that Whose Line Is It Anyway, so I started the film like that. Because it’s like, you know, “Are you a golfer? Are you a film star?” And then he says, “Oh, are you a boxer? You’re Muhammad Ali.” So the film starts like that. But in terms of structure, I didn’t want it to be a linear film, but I wanted people to be able to understand it. So we set up who he is, and [Gene says], “Here’s a story you might…” And then it goes back to his childhood. And so the brother talks about the childhood years, and the fact that he’d always had this dream. And then Angelo Dundee takes over, and you get to see what it’s like as a boxer. You know, you work really hard. He was always watching all the other fighters, and that leads you on… So, each person hands on the baton to someone else. In each section you should be getting more information or different aspects of his character. And throughout it all, the audiotapes provide his voice, so you always feel he’s present.
HANA: You feel like he’s actually telling the story.
MARYUM: And my dad, he believed in balance, and the film just kind of exemplifies the balance of who he is: the social activist, the father, the husband, the flawed man, the perfect man, the boxer. Someone said to me, “Well, shouldn’t the film have more about the religious convictions?” I’m like, “That’s been done before. The focus on Vietnam…” Everything’s been done before! This is the first one where it just shows a whole man, and I’m so happy she wasn’t a sports person, because I’ve had journalists tell me, “You know, you’re in this movie, but you weren’t around, you were too little to understand.” And I’m going… Okay? Bad headlines, good headlines, controversy, love, war… He comes back home and talks to his family. So we know the essence of who he is, and Clare brought that out.
HANA: And as you can know about my father and his legacy, he is not one to be shy to tell you the importance of himself or teach us about that life.
HANA: And at the same time, he’s humble.
MARYUM: I mean, I would be in class, and I’m in Spanish class, and he’s like… They say, “Count Dracula, Ronald Regan, Muhammad Ali.” I’m like, “My father’s in the textbook!” I couldn’t get away from him!
“I Am Ali” hits theaters this Friday, Oct. 10.