Michael Mann’s Ali, starring Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, plays in the “31 Days of Oscar” festival on Turner Classic Movies. I wrote an essay for the broadcast screening.
Will Smith plays “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, in Michael Mann’s biographical drama, Ali (2001), which covers the ten tumultuous years of his life from his first title match with Sonny Liston to his thrilling comeback in the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman in Zaire. These are the years when the man once known as Cassius Clay befriended Malcolm X, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and defied the government by refusing to serve in Vietnam; he stood by his principles even as he was convicted of draft evasion. He was stripped of his title and banned from the ring, and subsequently shunned by the Nation of Islam. Yet, Ali fought his way back to reclaim his title after he was exonerated by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision. Mann chose to focus on these years not just because they were the most volatile and dramatic era of Ali’s life, but because his transformation in this period, and his determination to stand by his principles in the face of legal threats and public hostility, offered a window into the era and insight to the personality and commitment that would guide the rest of his life.
Many efforts to make a feature film on the life of Muhammad Ali, thought to be the most famous man on the planet in the sixties and seventies, had been attempted for ten years. A script by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson made the rounds of the studios and directors and Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Norman Jewison and Steven Spielberg all reportedly tried to claim the project with no success. When Michael Mann signed on to Ali, he brought Eric Roth (his collaborator on the acclaimed The Insider, 1999) on board to help reshape the script; they cut down the sprawling screenplay (which originally covered Ali’s entire life) to the dynamic period between 1964 and 1974 and put in their own research to sharpen their presentation of those events. But Michael Mann resisted calling it a biopic. “We’re not here just to show you the events from the outside,” he explained in a 2001 New York Times interview. “This is about the real Ali, the one the public saw, but also about the one they didn’t see, and have never seen. We show him at his best, defying the U.S. government, refusing to be inducted into the Army and losing three and a half years of his career for it. We also show him at his worst, taunting and insulting his black opponents and cheating on his wife. This isn’t an idealized Ali.”
Plays on Saturday, February 25 on TCM. Also available on DVD.