The Man, The Muslim, The Movie
The new screen biography of Muhammad Ali runs out of canvas.
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Mann makes an effort to frame the boxer in his time--to portray the social, political, racial and religious ambience that brought the man into the national spotlight. The movie begins with Ali, then Cassius Clay, training in Louisville, Kentucky, where the roots of racial hatred are strong. But the real movie gets going with Ali's first heavyweight championship against Sony Liston in 1964, leading to his acquaintance with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and Ali's acceptance of the teachings of the Nation of Islam. His decision to change his name begins a slide in his public image, and his exile from boxing for refusing to enlist in the draft. Mann ends his account ten years later, with the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, where Ali regains his title from heavyweight champion George Foreman. It's a Hollywood ending--with the African chants of "Ali, Bumaye"--"Ali, kill him"--reverberating from the big screen.
But, in the end, we're left wondering about Muhammad Ali, the man. The makers of the film fail to explain what was going on behind the gloves, and why a man who could charm a nation and dominate his sport decided to choose another name, another religion, and take on the American establishment on various fronts well beyond the boxing ring.
The answers to these puzzles aren't contained in Ali's public performances. This heavyweight champion (a couple times over) not only captivated a tumultuous world; in many ways, he defined the rapidly changing world he lived in. He was loud, arguably obnoxious, and pompous. He embraced a religious movement that few people understood and that few people really understand today.
Mann makes clear the integral role the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X especially, played in Ali's life. But despite the degree to which images of Islam occupy the movie, the viewer never gets the chance to understand why the religion appealed to him, or to its larger African-American following. Few people grasp the fundamental teachings and origins of this controversial group (itdiffers from mainstream Islam
because its leader, Elijah Muhammad, declared himself a new prophet--a blasphemous act, since the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to be the last prophet in the world of orthodox Islam).
And few people, even, arguably, those in the Nation, understood the politics and the inner strife that plagued the movement. Ali himself became a strategic property in the battles between the Nation's leadership and Malcolm, who eventually was forced out of the movement and embraced mainstream Islam. Why was Malcolm kicked out? After watching Mann's movie, we really have no idea.