Everybody knows the story of Muhammad Ali. Either you lived zeitgeist, or you know someone who did.
Ali is a man whose legend is as imprinted on the cultural memory of the country (the world, even) as any of history’s great figures; you know Muhammad Ali without ever having heard of him. He is one of the (if not the) most well-known names in American sports, although his fame (and infamy) extend well beyond the boxing ring. While many pop culture icons wind up inevitably collapsing under the weight of their own egos and image, Ali flourished, and his legacy endures to this day. So what, in a world where his life and career have been extensively documented and written about, could yet another documentary, yet another record, offer to enrich the public discourse about this idiosyncratic figure? The answer is very simple, yet offers a wealth of complexity: I Am Ali offers the people who knew him best.
I Am Ali is an intriguing documentary that attempts to answer the question: who is Muhammad Ali, the man, as opposed to Muhammad Ali, the myth. It does this by interviewing those closest to him throughout his career: his trainer, his manager, his ex-wife, his children, even a boxing rival.
The film uses is set up in an episodic format, with clean breaks between each section, and each section tells of Ali from a different perspective. Each of the testimonials given in the film shows a different facet of Ali, whether it be his personality, his boxing skill, or his relationships, intercut with archival footage and interviews of Ali himself and previously unheard tape recordings he made of himself and his family throughout the years.
Where this method is effective is in its ability to break the portrait of a character (and Ali is a big character) into distinct ideas of what made him special. Here we have the impression he left on Gene Kilroy, Ali’s business manager and friend; now, we have his brother, Rahaman Ali, telling stories from their childhood that made Muhammad seem destined for greatness; close up is Angelo Dundee, his trainer gives us a sense of… And it goes on like this, presenting us with thoughts and reminiscence.
What the episodic structure does not lend itself to (not in this case, at least) is telling a coherent story with a beginning, middle, climax, and end. While this may sound like harsh criticism, it isn’t. This isn’t a film interested in telling a story, nor does it need to. Muhammad Ali is a known quantity, therefore what benefit would it be to the audience to rehash? (This is not to say that the film doesn’t progress in time or cover Ali’s boxing career; it does, and uses the chronology as an additional, and useful, tool of structure.) Clare Lewins, the film’s director, is not presenting us with a story of Ali’s “rise and fall” as a sportsman. Nor is Lewins even all that interested specifically in his boxing. This film is a character study, and it smartly stays away from the sensationalization and over-dramatization of Ali’s life. Rather, it lets its witnesses bring up the beats in a natural and organic way.
If there are any criticisms to levy against the film, they are: (1) Ali is revelatory of its subject, almost to a fault, and (2) the tape recordings, to which the filmmakers reportedly had “unprecedented access,” are not used especially effectively. Addressing these criticisms in order:
There is more or less one emotional note hit by the film throughout, and that is one of awe and gratitude — awe at the man, gratitude at having known him. The witnesses only speak of the absolute good of Muhammad Ali, how influential he was, what a great family man he was. Of these things I have no doubt, nor do I wish to imply that I think he was not these things; however, a human being is layered, and as a character study I can’t help but wish that more aspects of Ali’s character had been explored, more layers exposed. (The closest the film gets is Veronica Porche, his third wife, mentioning that he is “sensitive.”) On the other hand, the absolute adoration with which those in his life speak of him might just give us as clear of a sense of his character as we need, that he was loving, and completely honest and earnest in everything he did, even the more controversial aspects (or maybe especially in the more controversial aspects).
As for the tapes: they serve as bookends for the chapters, letting us hear, say, a conversation between Ali and his daughter. These recordings are touching and insightful, and they do give us a sense of how he was in his home life, but they are under-utilized and not well integrated, and as a result come off as seeming unnecessary and, worse, disrupting the flow of the film. That being said, these tapes are not unwelcome in the picture — just the opposite. I only wish they could have been used more effectively.
Regardless of its faults, I Am Ali is a very good documentary. For anyone who grew up fascinated by the icon of Muhammad Ali and wants to know more about the man, the film is essential. For those who are more indifferent to him, boxing, sports in general, or simply don’t know much about him, it is still recommended, for this is not a film about a boxer: it is a film about a life, the life of one of the most captivating figures of the twentieth century.