The man Muhammed Ali is introduced to us in his zone of focus, training both in vigor and in grace. Within the soulful opening credit sequence, he runs through the streets clad in his iconic grey sweatwear. Interrupting his focus is a squad car pulling up behind him. “What you runnin from, son?” they ask. He pays them no response before the prying “officers” move along to take a call. It is on these streets where Ali wins his fights before they begin, as well as where he engages in the eternal struggle with his opponent in society.
2001’s Ali painted both the boxing and cultural icon throughout just ten years of his life. But it is in this decade, from his legendary back to back encounters with Sonny Liston in 1964 and ‘65 to his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in 1974, that he forges the zenith of his legacy both inside and outside of the ring. And so it is these years that director Michael Mann frames this narrative.
The man and the ideas that shape him are introduced during the quite expository opening credits; they're intercut with a young Cassius Clay shuffling to the back of the bus, eyeing the headlines of a slain Emmitt Till, witnessing the painting of a white Jesus, and finally flirting with the teachings of the Nation of Islam and discovering Malcolm X. But the gab-gifted character of Ali is introduced directly after this at the weigh-in for his Sonny Liston fight. The first act formally begins upon a routinely colorful Ali entrance. Will Smith barges through the doors with a verse of insults into a sea of journalists. My apprehensions on Smith’s ability to command the aura of Muhammed Ali actively faded away throughout my viewing. In fear of a one-dimensional showing, I was pleased with not only his expected soulful charisma but also his subtle touches during times of vulnerability. When Ali loses his boxing license for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam draft, Smith plays him confident yet slightly deflated. The uncertainty in the manner in which he answers “I don’t know” to the question of if he is going to prison is telling of the courage necessitated by standing firm in your principles. Most times he is still spirited when spotted on the street and shares words with his people. The mise-en-scene too communicates this period of his career well with the snowy Chicago streets and the rusted service station that hosts his meetings. He is the people’s exiled champion.
“I got a much bigger contender, a much heavier opponent. I’m fightin’ the entire U.S. government.”
Within the ten years that the film spans we see his relationship with seminal figures outside of boxing such as Malcolm X and the leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammed. Both Malcolm's and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations are given screen time which are both stylistically captivating and unexpected with how seamlessly they weave into the narrative. This strengthens the attention that the film pays to the events that do not merely just frame this time in Ali’s life, but both hinder and incite his spirit.
When the viewer is transported into the ring it is a beautiful and unflinching sight, audibly punctuated by the smacking thud of leather meeting flesh and lit by camera flashbulbs and yellowed arena lights. The action is conveyed through dynamic low and canted angles, switching between these and more modest shots. The times when our fighters are in the clinch are shown through fisheye POV shots that rock with each blow to the body. They say boxing is a game of inches, and times of precision are slowed to enhance this precarious path of movement. Will Smith brings these scenes to life with his exceptional impersonation of Ali’s dancing footwork and elusive head movement, along with his iconic jab and flurries. This is likely thanks in part to Ali’s famed trainer Angelo Dundee overseeing a technical advisory role. Further accenting his style are the verbal jabs often thrown in the ring as well. The bout scenes are overall attractive and effective. And though they do not echo the same thespian approach of Scorsese's Raging Bull, it extracts just what is needed from that operatic grandeur.
Muhammad Ali is celebrated as an American hero in today’s popular culture, but the public’s eye hasn’t always twinkled with the same admiration. The film succeeds as both a boxing film and a biopic in the way it conveys to us this societal struggle. His fights both in and out of the ring are paid with the same awareness, and this allows us as the viewer to witness the way in which they fuel each other. From the demonstration of the racial zeitgeist of the decade, through the injection of his Muslim faith, and finally to the solidification of his status as the champion of the people, Ali dances upon us visually and stings with the truth of our country’s history. Rumble, young man rumble.