Jab in the Right Direction

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Review of 'Ali', director Michael Mann

Pity the makers of 'Ali', the long gestated $105 million Hollywood biopic starring Will Smith. The picture was in the can well before 11 September, and one can imagine the growing discomfort of studio executives as they wondered how to market this tale of a black American who converts to Islam and then refuses to serve his country in a time of war. In the US the film has already proved a box office disappointment, overshadowed by Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.

Michael Mann's film meticulously recreates major episodes from Ali's heyday--the glorious, controversy-infused years from his upset victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 to his incomparable comeback in Kinshasa against George Foreman in 1974. The care that has been lavished on sets and locations, the attention to period detail, and the rich array of sights and sounds are a constant pleasure, but too often they are the only pleasure. Despite (or because of) the presence of five writers on the screen credits, the film is under-written, as is so much Hollywood product these days.

A number of the smaller parts--Jeffrey Wright as Ali's loyal friend Howard Bingham, Ron Silver as his trainer Angelo Dundee, Mykelti Williams as Don King, David Elliott as Sam Cook, as well as Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye and Michael Michele as Ali's first three wives--are given weight more by the charisma of the performers than any dramatic significance crafted by the film makers. Jamie Foxx's Bundini Brown (the self styled black Jewish alcoholic who coined 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee') is given more room to breathe, to poignant effect. More dialogue, and less of Ali/Smith staring soulfully at his surroundings, would have been welcome.

The film unequivocally celebrates Ali's defiance of American racism and the Vietnam War, but does little to explain either. I wonder what young people with little knowledge of the period will make of it all. There's a brief scene in which Ali's lawyer, Chauncey Eskridge (another underdeveloped cameo, this time from the excellent Joe Morton), is talking to his client from a hotel telephone. We hear a shot and glimpse a dead man lying on a balcony. For some of us it is obvious that the place is Memphis, the year 1968, and the dead man Martin Luther King. But for many others it will be merely one of a flurry of sometimes arresting but usually uncontextualised images.

Despite some juggling of the sequence of events, 'Ali' is largely faithful to facts. However, it performs a telling sleight of hand when it comes to the detail of Malcolm X's break with the Nation of Islam. In the film, Malcolm (adroitly played by Mario Van Peebles) says that Elijah Muhammad has suspended him because of his desire to support the civil rights movement in the wake of the murder of four black children at a Birmingham, Alabama, church. In fact Malcolm was suspended because he chose to place the traumatic assassination of John F Kennedy in the context of US intervention in Congo and Vietnam, and described it, to the shock of nearly everyone in the country at the time, as a case of 'the chickens coming home to roost'. Had the statement been included in the film, after 11 September it probably would have wound up on the cutting room floor. Received wisdom would have it that the way to popularise a political subject like Ali is to focus on the personal drama and keep the arguments in the background. But in this case, at least, the received wisdom is wrong.

The best way to have led inexperienced viewers into the political terrain would have been to let Ali speak for himself, as he did with such verve, wit, intelligence and uncompromising commitment in the 1960s. It's telling that some of the liveliest scenes are those in which Smith carries off a note perfect reproduction of Ali's recorded performances in press conferences and TV interviews. These are funny, biting, surreal, political and personal, and they were the only moments in the film to raise a laugh among the audience. It's hard to improve on an original like Ali. Apart from these scenes, and when he is doing his stuff (reasonably convincingly) in the ring, Smith's approach to the role is honourable but a little too solemn. The impish mischief that energised Ali's years hardly appears, and the anger is mostly bottled up. So the reluctance to engage with ideas, and perhaps a fear of hard edged politics, ends up undermining the audience-engaging qualities Mann and his writers were seeking.

For a clear and intensely dramatic explanation of what Ali meant in his early years, it will be hard to beat the few minutes of Malcolm X talking direct to camera in the William Klein documentary 'The Greatest', now being rereleased. Ali addicts, who relish any footage of the man in his prime doing almost anything, will feel compelled to see the film, but it's an amorphous, unkempt assemblage, and any unifying theme has to be supplied by the viewer. In 'Ali' and 'The Greatest', the 'Rumble in the Jungle', when Ali reclaimed the title that had been taken from him because of his political convictions, provides an irresistible climax. In both films, as in 'When We Were Kings', the moment when Ali, having soaked up round after round of brutal punishment, dumps Foreman on the mat retains the power to make the hair on your neck bristle. No matter how many times I see it, in how many forms, it still makes me want to leap up and join in the jubilant celebrations that followed in the stadium, on the streets of Kinshasa and around the world.