Bill O’Byrne’s Bargain Bin Blues: I Am Ali
I am Ali | Value for money $$$
- Written and directed by Clare Lewins.
I Am Ali reminds you just how beautiful Muhammad Ali was.
In this 2013 doco there’s no sign of the modern version, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and suffering from old fartism.
The person here is the young, cocky, rhyming prince who danced like Fred Astaire in the boxing ring, had fists of iron, but who was a devoted family guy, and a, usually, kind person who backed life’s underdogs.
It’s full of good yarns about him. For instance, his brother Rahaman talks about how young Muhammad, then Cassius Clay jnr, would train to dodge punches by getting Rahaman to throw rocks at him in their back yard in Louisville Kentucky.
To be fair though, Ali could also be a bit of a dick. His treatment of Joe Frazier, calling him an ugly gorilla and an Uncle Tom was vile. Particularly when Frazier had lobbied for Ali to be allowed to fight again after being stripped of his world heavyweight title for refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War.
It was a weird aberration – Frazier took things seriously that Ali probably meant to be theatrics for public consumption. Though Ali was a master of the pre-bout mind feck. And he was always trying to entertain.
Through access to audio tapes Ali made in the 1970s and 80s, and interviews with his kids (nine official, some not quite) Ali comes across as a person who loved people, lit up when he had an audience, and was the same at home as he was in public.
Director Clare Lewins got to the inner circle of the Ali entourage through her work with the BBC when she had dealt with Gene Kilroy, Ali’s friend and former business manager. That lead to meeting the daughters May May and Hana.
From May May she found out Ali had kept audio diaries and interviews with his kids and she uses these in the movie as a narrative, to supply a timeline but to also show his affection for friends and family. When he makes some surprise announcements, like planning to win the heavyweight title for the fourth time in the “Drama in the Bahamas” in 1981 the young May May goes “Nooooo”.
It’s all pretty one-sided in praise, apart from the sad Frazier episode. Ali could be seen as a braggart, but to for him it was showtime stuff that was just part of the game and the more people were around him, the more they fell under his spell.
To see him in the ring, toying with opponents, dancing around them, was to realise what a talent he was. To see him take a pounding from George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire was to see how physically tough he was.
But it was his moral bravery that sets Ali apart. He converted to Islam when he decided Christianity wasn’t honest to black people, he stood up to the US government rather than support a military fighting in Vietnam, and he helped out those in need all the time. (One of his four wives tells the story of coming home to find their bathroom full of mud. Ali had met a homeless guy, given him a shower and a suit of clothes. Apparently this sort of thing was just what he did a lot. The story of him and a boy with leukemia is also insightful as to the size of Ali’s heart.)
Of course he was also a major stick man. That’s why he had four wives.
Charisma, looks and fame all worked in his favour with the ladies. But even if kids were born out of wedlock he made sure they got together at least once a year to know each other. It might have been a quiet boast, but it was, according to those in this doco, a sign of his love.
There are five three-five featurettes on the Blu-ray with interviews not in the final cut based on the subheadings of Fighter, Brother, Lover, Father and then a bit about the composition of the soundtrack used in between the contemporary music from the times. (The funkasonic tunes came from a bunch of very middle aged, white Pommy guys at London’s RAK studios. Apparently a studio worth using if you wish to create some funk.)
Historic Footnote: Ali started off as Cassius Marcellus Clay and says he changed it after converting to Islam as it was a name inherited from the system of slavery.
But to be fair, if you were going to be named after a person from the slave era in Kentucky and you were black, then Cassius Clay was as good as you were going to get.
Clay was pretty much the arse-kicking-est, slavery fighting-est, hardest son of a bitch in Kentucky. While making a speech for the abolition of slavery in 1849, he was attacked by six members of the slaveholding Turner clan who beat, stabbed and tried to shoot him. In the ensuing fight, Clay fought off all six and, using his Bowie knife, disembowelled Cyrus Turner.
Clay served as US ambassador to Russia during the American Civil War, got divorced when he was 68 due to his infidelities, married a 15 year old domestic servant when he was 84 and died when he was 93 of “general exhaustion”. His two daughters were prominent fighters for women’s rights.
And that’s why history is a more fun subject than chemistry.