"Ali": Capturing the Legacy of a Decade

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1134, January 13, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

I rassled an alligator, I done tassled with a whale
I handcuffed lightning
Threw thunder in jail!
That's bad!
Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone
I'm so mean I make medicine sick

a poem Muhammad Ali wrote to answer
the claim he wasn't ready for his title fight
against George Foreman in 1974

I forgot! I forgot what it was that made me and all my friends want to be Muhammad Ali. We boxed--big-eared boys, all knees and elbows--and we boxed hard in a vacant-lot ring with a dirt floor and old clothesline ropes. Old men out of work came by in T-shirts to referee and throw out pointers--"Boy, keep those hands up! Throw that punch with some power, don't swing around like that."

On Saturday nights my grandfather brought me to the neighborhood taproom--beer-soaked sawdust floors and pre-recorded boxing matches on an old black-and-white TV. It was here that I first saw Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay.

It was the first Liston fight and the bar was more crowded than usual--since no one really believed that Liston went down so easy. My grandfather had a rep for a short temper, fast fists and good stories. He also liked fairness and he loved underdogs, especially when they didn't accept that status. That night he cajoled all of his friends into betting on the boxing match with me. He made them all bet on Sonny Liston--a quarter a bet--even though everyone in the world already knew the outcome. Most of the bar was quiet or shouting in surprise but my grandfather was the loudest and he was cheering for Ali.

When it was over and we walked the block or so back to our house--my pockets full of quarters and his face one big smile--he put his arm around me and told me that he had forced his friends to bet on Liston because he wanted to rub it in: his friends didn't like Cassius Clay but my grandfather did. He was convinced that Clay was gonna raise some kind of hell for a long time to come and that as far as he was concerned this was a good thing. When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he became the most vilified and most loved sports figure since Jack Johnson stirred the cry for "the great white hope."

My grandfather died about a year or so later and I quit boxing. I liked my ears and nose the way they were and I really hated that feeling I got when somebody landed a right cross anywhere on my head. Besides, after Ali's first fight we all used to spend more time putting together rhymes about each other and all claiming to be the greatest than we did actually punching each other. But I still wanted to be Muhammad Ali. I loved his in-your-face defiance, the way he never backed down. And I loved the way he did it, always with a twinkle in his eye when he was among the people and a ready snarl for the powers. I loved his confidence as he took on the biggest and most dangerous opponents in and out of the ring. I loved the way Ali stood with the people--the Black people here fighting against racism and national oppression and the Vietnamese people fighting the largest military power in the world for their liberation. I loved the way he refused to be pushed aside.

I had forgotten all this, until Ali, the film by director Michael Mann, brought it back, and damn, it felt good.


A boxing historian once remarked that the times get the champion they deserve. Mann gets it. His film tells the story of what was really most important about Muhammad Ali to the masses of people. And together with an amazing ensemble of actors and the fresh eye of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Mann tells this story beautifully.

Through a year and a half of intense training, actor Will Smith worked to get inside the character of Ali in what has been described as a "metamorphosis of the soul": "Beyond looking like a fighter, my goal was to learn to think like a fighter," says Smith. "To do that I had to eat like a fighter, sleep like a fighter, assess situations in life like a fighter...become a fighter."

Jamie Foxx is an engaging counterpoint to Smith's Ali as Drew "Bundini" Brown--Ali's trainer, aide de camp, street poet, and inventor of immortal rhymes--"float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Foxx moves from comic to profound as Bundini's struggle to overcome heroin addiction mirrors Ali's own struggle to fight again. His down to earth love for Ali stands in contrast to the sleazy opportunism of the "businessmen" of the Nation of Islam.

John Voight delivers fight commentator Howard Cosell--and the combative and affectionate relationship between Cosell and Ali. Jada Pinkett-Smith captures the frankness and boldness of young women of the times as Ali's spirited first wife, Sonji. And Mario Van Peebles recreates the comradeship between Malcolm X and Ali.

Ali is both relevant and transporting--it takes you to another place as a really good story does.

From the moment the movie opens--with a montage of cross-cut images of events that helped shape Ali's life, we see Ali as someone created by his times, by the people and the challenges they faced. Steamy scenes from a Sam Cooke club concert convey a sense of cultural heat. Cooke's songs and music were close to the hearts of the masses of Black people. His sweet voice concentrated hope and striving for freedom and an end to oppression.

Cops roll up behind Ali on a late night training run before the first Liston fight and demand with a reptilian hiss "What you running from, boy?" The nine-year-old Cassius Clay rides in the back of a Jim Crow bus in Louisville, Kentucky with his eyes locked on a newspaper photo of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a black youth lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. We see Ali standing in the back of a Nation of Islam meeting addressed by Malcolm X.

The movie focuses on the years 1964 through 1974. It's about the most rebellious period in the history of this country. And it's about how times like these can bring forward people like Ali--a People's Champ--and the impact such a champion can have on the times. This is the theme that Mann returns to again and again in his film.

"Before I could commit to make this film, I had to find a story I wanted to tell," said Michael Mann. "In one way, the story is simple: a man wins the heavyweight boxing championship; his title is unfairly taken from him, and he begins his quest to regain his crown and bring about justice. That ten year period in history was all about fighting for justice.

"I wasn't interested in telling this story as a documentary or an exercise in nostalgia...What excited me about this project was the possibility of taking people inside his world. During that period, Ali's search for identity was quite extraordinary. As he strove to define himself, he defied those who would project their own preconceptions onto him. He first decided he was Muhammad Ali, then decided who Muhammad Ali was."

Mann clearly loves the Ali of those years. He pulled together an incredible cast for the film and he has paid close attention to the details. All this helps to put us right there in it. At the same time, Mann also doesn't shy away from all the contradictoriness in the situation--both in the times and in Ali. He shows Ali splitting with Malcolm over political differences and then growing more alienated from the Nation of Islam as the years go on and he starts to step out more in the struggle. And even while Ali fights powerfully against the oppression of Black people, the film portrays his possessive and hurtful womanizing ways.

But the key event that shapes the drama of the film is Ali's refusal to serve in the US Army and his opposition to the Vietnam War.


Mann brings a lot of heart to the story: "The things that impacted Muhammad Ali impacted everybody of my generation. If you saw the carnage in Vietnam or earlier in Selma and Birmingham, you were enraged. It was a rage that didn't go away. Ali came on to the international scene with that sense of outrage. And he was also brash, funny and outrageous. He consistently defied the establishment and its conventions and we loved him for it."

While Ali had always talked about being a People's Champ--and certainly was more so than any other boxer before him--it wasn't until he took his stand around the war that he really came into the role full force. He electrified the masses of Black people, the people struggling against the war and the oppressed people all over the world when he said straight up that he had no interest in fighting the Vietnam War, that he "had no quarrel with the Vietcong" and that "No Vietcong ever called me n*gger." He outraged the oppressors and everybody lined up with them. Even the Nation of Islam is revealed as being peeved by Ali's stand and willing to cut a deal with the U.S. government around Ali's military service.

The system hit hard at Ali, and Mann does an excellent job painting this picture. He shows the FBI and CIA spying on Ali--the first boxer in 50 years to be investigated by the FBI. The government wanted him to apologize for his remarks about the war. They were terrified of the impact he was having among the people. They offered him a deal--if he would join the army they would guarantee that he wouldn't have to go to war and that he could even continue to box. They wanted him to capitulate. Ali stood strong against them.

The scene where Ali actually refuses induction makes your heart swell with pride and joy. Later, after he has been convicted of refusing induction into the army and has had his championship title and his right to box taken away, and he still refuses to apologize for his stand, a boxing commissioner snarls at him "And you call yourself the People's Champ?" Ali is shown rising up tall and proud and snarling right back, "Yes I do!"

Moments later Ali is in the hallway and one of the strongest scenes in the film unfolds as reporters pepper him with questions about his stand and the possibility that he could go to prison for 5 years. Ali snapped back quick, telling reporters that he didn't have to go ten thousand miles to find his enemy, that his enemy was right here, that it was the powers right here who opposed his fight for freedom and equality. And he added, "My people been in jail for four hundred years, so four or five years don't scare me!"


Ali fought for more than championship titles; he fought for Black people, for equality, against the U.S. government. He fought for the right to use his name against those who vilifed him and those who gave it to him and then tried to take it back when they couldn't control him any more.

The film unfolds Ali's fight against the government and the battle to regain his right to box and his heavyweight championship title. It's a long hard battle, filled with insights about where the oppressed can find allies in their struggle and how being strong can help make others strong in the face of the enemy.

Mann has captured on screen for this generation of youth the profound stakes Ali waged in maintaining his political stance at a crucial time in history.

"I knew he was a fighter, but I also knew that he stood up against the Vietnam War," said Will Smith. "Kids who are 21 today have no real sense of that era, no real sense of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-Vietnam War Movement. Still, some they associate Ali with all that. But they have no idea of the depth of suffering that went into forming that association."

Focusing on the close relationship that Ali developed with ABC television sports commentator Howard Cosell--an amazing acting job by Jon Voight--Mann shows how Ali's courage and principled stand against racism and the war really drew forward allies from other parts of society, inspired them and strengthened their own backbone and ability to stand up against the powers.

When Ali devises a strategy to win back his right to fight and his title, it's Cosell who helps him implement it by getting his story out on national television and helping build up public support for Ali. And when Ali prevails in the Supreme Court, Cosell seems almost as happy as Ali does that Ali won't be going to jail and will be able to fight again.

After losing a heartbreaking bout with the reigning champ Joe Frazier, Ali finally gets his chance to win back his championship belt from George Foreman in 1974. This is the fight that was promoted by Don King and dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle since it took place in Zaire. And this was the fight that the people of the world were waiting for.

Mann returns to theme of the People's Champ and the important relationship between the people and Ali. From the moment the fight is announced, no one believes Ali can win, after all, Ali hasn't really fought for 4 years and he is 8 years older than Foreman.

In Zaire, Ali stood for courage and hope. John Voight recalls talking on the phone to Ali before the Zaire fight. "'Well I have to win, don't I?' He knew what he was carrying for everybody...he knew what it meant to so many of us. We all needed to have him win back what had been taken from him."

Only Ali and the people believe he can win. When Ali first arrives in Zaire he is greeted by huge throngs of people all shouting "Ali Bomaye!" (Ali, Kill him!) Everywhere he goes in Zaire he is met with this chant, the people want him to win and they are ferocious in their belief that he can do it. One morning Ali takes a detour on his training run through a poor residential area in Kinshasa--past tin huts, down dirt roads and straight into the heart of the masses. Ali sees both the love that the people have for him and the responsibility he has to the people. The people chant and run along with him--laughing, reaching to touch him, pretending to spar with him. This is their champion, and in those few moments there is nothing else in the world but Ali and the people and each seems to know that the other is depending on them.

Ali told a reporter, "I'm going to win this fight for the prestige, not for me but to uplift my brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, Black people on welfare, Black people who can't eat, Black people who have no future. I want to win my title so I can walk down the alleys and talk to wineheads, to the prostitutes, to the dope addicts. I want to help my brothers in Louisville, Kentucky, in Cincinnati, Ohio and here in Africa regain their dignity. That's why I have to be a winner, that's why I have to beat George Foreman."

Ali wins this fight, relying again on his skill as a boxer, on his ability to quickly size up his opponents and turn their strengths into weaknesses, and on the kind of heart that sustained him through grueling rounds of punishment by improvising the now famous "rope a dope" strategy--hanging back on the ropes and allowing Foreman to deliver a series of punches that eventually wore Foreman out and left him wide open for Ali's knockout punch.

The film ends with this triumphant moment.


"The real 'greatest generation' was the '60s generation'--to be outdone by this current generation.

"Standing up against the unspeakable crimes carried out by the ruling class of your own country and striving for a world in which such outrages would no longer exist, is something far, far greater than being cogs and instruments in the machinery of destruction and killing that enforces and adds to these crimes.

"The '60s generation' went in the face of great pressure and made great sacrifices to set a high standard in this way, and we are called on to live up to and even surpass that now, in face of what may be even greater challenges--and it is up to the current generation to pick up that banner and raise it even higher, carry it even farther."

Bob Avakian, Some Notes on the Developing Crisis and War,
RW October 26,2001

As the years moved on after the Foreman fight, Ali seemed to lose his spirit, he stopped being a warrior. Things got really sad. It hurt to watch him wracked with Parkinson's Disease. But it hurt even more to watch as Ali made peace with the system. He still understood that Black people catch hell in America, but at the same time he began promoting America and its ideals as the best of all possible worlds. And under all this, I forgot why I ever wanted to be Muhammad Ali.

After seeing Ali I walked around with a smile for days. By capturing what really mattered to the people about Ali, Mann created a story that is drawn from life, but higher than life. And in a way he has rescued the legacy for new generations.

A few days after I saw the film I was speaking with a friend who had a very rough time back in September and October trying to figure out how and whether it was the right thing to come out and oppose America's current war on Afghanistan--especially when it seemed that so few were speaking out.

My friend told me that watching Ali stand up against the Vietnam War made him realize that there are times when it is absolutely crucial to put everything on the line and stand up to do what's right. My friend vowed that he would never again hesitate in the face of this challenge. We hugged. And I thought "that's about the best review a film can get."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)