Even those familiar with the Nation of Islam's history might leave confused about the exact relationship between Ali and the Nation, which Mann tries to communicate through Ali's relationship with Malcolm. Ali and Malcolm did share a special relationship in real life, but Van Peebles fails to capture the man torn between loyalty towards his group and a search for truth. Though Ali tells Malcolm early on that he is wrong for quarreling with Elijah and the Nation, both have faced banishment by the Nation by the end. When Malcolm is killed, Ali is obviously affected, but we're not sure what role Malcolm played in his life, other than the sense that it may have been more than Mann is letting on.
One of the few moments when the film gives us a taste of Ali's personal religious feeling comes when Herbert Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation's primary spokesman in the movie, comes to Ali to tell him that Elijah has accepted him back into the Nation. Ali's response: "You saying I can practice my religion again? I never stopped." But we're not sure how Ali feels or where he stands with the Nation after Elijah Muhammad's ambassadors show up at Ali's doorstep after the courts, and Americans, have absolved him and he is ready to fight Foreman.
Mann firmly makes the point that Elijah Muhammad is an opportunist--ready to embrace Ali when he is on top and defiant, but absent when Ali needs them. But he doesn't tell us why Ali lets the Nation back in his life as he's ready for his comeback. He ends the movie without showing Ali's conversion to mainstream Islam.
The easy part--the part Mann gives us--is delivering the champ. "Ali" does that well. But, the harder, more difficult challenge of delivering how a conflicted man becomes a divisive symbol falls short. Mann tries to make a movie about race, civil rights, and religion, but he makes a better movie about boxing. These days, we know a person is a real legend when Hollywood makes a movie about him during his or her lifetime. For Ali the man, that time has come twice. For "Ali" the movie, maybe that's the point.