He is also a symbol, and this is the Ali we get in Michael Mann's new movie about the heavyweight champ who can still draw attention by visiting the World Trade Center after the September terrorist attacks, or by overcoming his Parkinson's disease to light the Olympic torch. Ali embodied a fiery wing of the civil-rights movement, capturing in his exotic name and his vocal anger the rise of black power in the United States. He brought Islam into the American consciousness--even if few people distinguished between the unorthodox Nation of Islam and mainstream Islam.
If Ali could not play Ali, if he could not carry his own weight, then who can? Can Will Smith, aka the Fresh Prince, be trusted to do justice to the King of the Ring? Size-wise, Smith has transformed his body into a fighter's build, and pulls off the quips that made people love to watch Ali. Director Michael Mann, who won acclaim with "The Insider," depicts the tension of being in the public eye and the ring. The beautifully choreographed fighting, even for non-boxing fans, is fun to watch, as are the people Ali brought with him. His relationship with Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), his ringside cheerleader known for coining the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," provides some of the most comical lines in the movie.
The best developed and most entertaining relationship is the one between Ali and Howard Cosell, played here by John Voight. Their bantering--it originally unfolded on TV, after all--is a natural for the screen. "Ali" also brings home the unlikely personal relationship that developed off-screen between the opinionated, older broadcaster with the signature abrasive whine, and the young, honey-voiced champ. Their relationship spanned race and religion, with Cosell accepting Ali's Muslim name earlier than others were willing to, and supporting the champ even in his rougher times.
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 (it differs 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).
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.