Throughout the month of February, Full Circle Cinema celebrates Black History Month by revisiting films made for and told by prominent Black men and women. We will reflect on an extraordinary history filled with moments both triumphant and tragic in the still ongoing fight for equality and justice for all. Through the sharing of stories, we pay tribute to the storytellers.
“I’m definitely gonna be the people’s champion. But I just ain’t gonna be the champ the way you want me to be the champ. I’m gonna be the champ the way I want to be.”
Let’s talk about Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali is a hero to many. Because for many, Ali changed the world. While mastering his craft in the boxing ring, Ali painted a portrait of the complexities of Black Americans simultaneously. From his upset victory over Sonny Liston at the age of 22 to refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War, Ali’s character was constant. He was a fighter with a seemingly overflowing reserve of resiliency and pride. As a boxer, he dominates the competition. His name will live forever as a legend and, arguably, the greatest to ever do it. However, as an activist, he was never afraid to lend a helping hand or spread a message of positivity and equality.
Tasked with telling the story of this hero, co-writer and director Michael Mann understood these simple truths. Enlisting the great Will Smith is a solid start. However, surrounding him with a supporting cast featuring Jamie Foxx, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jeffrey Wright details the commitment to displaying a powerful depiction of the legend.
Beginning in the middle of a hotly-contested world title fight with Sonny Liston, it’s clear that Smith did his homework. Mastering the southern drawl and the unmitigated swagger of Ali, it’s easy for the viewer to separate the performance from the performer. This isn’t the comedic Fresh Prince playing a character, this is a world-class actor beginning to show just what he’s capable of. The personality of Muhammad Ali is on full display. However, the man masked in showmanship is a mystery that begins to unravel as Ali unfolds.
One of the more powerful elements of the film is the romantic relationships Ali holds throughout his life. Mixing his faith and association with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, his Muslim beliefs often clash with his celebrity lifestyle. With Jada Pinkett-Smith embodying Sonji Roj, Ali’s first wife, love humbles the larger-than-life personality. Moreover, the narrative portrays Muhammad Ali as a sympathetic figure struggling to come to terms with a higher calling. Ali quickly finds himself between the wishes of the Nation of Islam and a friendship with the now ex-communicated Malcolm X. However, Ali’s reaction to the killing of X is a gripping portrait of regret. Which, of course, Smith plays perfectly.
After committing to the teachings of the Nation of Islam and earning his new name, he faces immediate disapproval from his father and many in the media. Then, years later, Ali stands his ground during pivotal moments of the United States draft. When the government calls his name, he refuses to move forward. Citing his religious beliefs and ethical opposition to the Vietnam War, Ali is arrested and charged with draft evasion. Stripped of his boxing license, title, and sentenced to five years in prison, the film depicts a simple man. A simple man with beliefs and a determination to stand up for those beliefs. For the first time, it appears the man behind the veil of confidence arrives. Smith now gets the chance to dive deep into the ethos of Muhammed Ali. Every once in a while, a script meets the right reader, and magic is made.
The film does not shy away from Ali’s real-life anger towards the treatment of Black people in America. From his declaration that his last name of Clay is a slave name to his reference to Emmett Till, it’s clear he never forgets his roots. Ali famously used his platform to shine a light on the mistreatment of Black folks and his desire to move his people forward. While the film is, on paper, a biographical sports drama, the civil rights struggle was always on the mind of Ali during the height of his career.
In a film filled with emotional turmoil, the most powerful moment comes when Ali travels to Zaire. The world-famous Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman alters the narrative. He then goes on a whirlwind of emotions. Losing the heavyweight championship against Joe Frazier and going through two divorces, Ali is figuratively a man with his back against the ropes.
Mann deserves a wealth of praise for a scene showing Ali running through an African village. The scene first starts with an overhead shot of him running, which it punctuates with multiple close-ups of villagers reacting. Slowly, but surely, residents of the village join Ali and chant “Ali, Bomaye” meaning, “Ali, kill him!” in Lingala. By the end, the close-ups wash away in favor of a shot of the entire village behind him. With this contrast in imagery, the audience gets to feel the motivation radiating from everyone. Ali realizes his impact on the world and internalizes it.
It’s no accident, then, that this marks a turning point for Ali. As his fears wash away, Ali’s swagger returns. During the legendary fight with Foreman, Ali becomes a man with his back literally against the ropes. Ali leans back against the ropes, allowing Foreman to tire himself out and regains the Heavyweight Championship of the world. Ali’s legacy is not just as “The Greatest” in the ring with a legendary career. Moreover, this world-class athlete steps into a role of an inspirational ambassador of goodwill. Fighting for civil rights in opposition to his white oppressors, Ali stands the test of time as the people’s champion. – Christian Hubbard
In honor of the unconscionable murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black lives, please take a moment to visit the Black Lives Matter homepage and see how you can help. Spread awareness!
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