A man talks to another man in Ali.
Sony

The first time we really see Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in the 2001 biopic bearing the boxer’s name, it’s at a press conference. Ali, then still going by his given name of Cassius Clay, has arrived to weigh in — in multiple respects — before his title match against the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt). Smith doesn’t look or sound exactly like the man he’s playing, but he gets the puckish adversarial spirit, the born-entertainer braggadocio, down cold. This is the Muhammad Ali of legend, throwing jabs of rhyming, musical trash talk before letting his fists do the talking for him in the ring.

Liston, however, is unfazed. As he heads for the exit, he turns to answer the flurry of playful taunts: “Keep talking — I’ll f–k you up.” At that moment, Ali’s mask of insult-comic confidence slips a little. Smith lets us see a glimmer of the fear and uncertainty under his famous jocularity, and helps us understand how much that jokester routine was a strategic performance. Here, if only for a brief second, does a crack emerge in the magnetic public image of Muhammad Ali.

Ali Gets Ready to Fight | Young Will Smith | Ali (2001)

These days, it’s difficult to watch Ali, which is now streaming on Netflix, without thinking of the crack the film’s star recently put in his own public image. For most of his career, Will Smith has projected an unblemished charisma: approachable, good-humored, mostly wholesome. Few movie stars of the modern era have remained more devoted to staying squeaky clean in the public eye — an indefinite PR campaign that extends from the roles Smith has accepted to the radio hits he’s made to the mediated glimpses into his personal life he’s allowed. On Oscar night 2022, that campaign faltered with the slap heard round the planet. Right on the cusp of his greatest professional recognition, Smith lost the control he’s so long asserted over the way the world sees him.

You could call Ali an early attempt to deliberately reshape his reputation. It was, after all, the film that landed Smith his first Oscar nomination (two decades before King Richard made him an Oscar winner), and also the moment that the actor began alternating the mega-budget blockbusters on his resume with hefty dramatic roles. But did he see more than a bid for prestige and serious-actor bona fides in the role of the greatest boxer who ever lived? Could the story of a famous Black star under constant pressure to meet everyone’s expectations have resonated with the one-time king of the summer movie season?

Like most of the best biopics, Ali declines to offer a life story, opting instead to dramatize only a single significant decade of its subject’s career. But that decade in question happens to be 1964 to 1974, which hints at the much loftier ambitions of Michael Mann’s muscular, supersized drama: It attempts nothing less than placing Ali in the larger context of a tumultuous historical moment — of finding where he fits into the upheaval of the 1960s, the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement, and rise of a new generation of Black icons. The movie opens not with Ali but with a young Sam Cooke (David Elliott) serenading screaming fans on stage. And one of the crucial relationships is between Ali and Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), who’s practically a co-lead up until the point where an assassin violently, abruptly cuts him from the film’s timeline.

These first few minutes, which take “float like a butterfly” as editorial direction, are among the most quietly electrifying of Mann’s career — a montage that drops us instantly into a particular chapter in history, Ali’s and the country’s. With the quickest of brushstrokes does the director of Heat and The Insider introduce the various mentor figures Ali accumulates on his rise through the ranks, all men of different faiths: Malcolm, who helps usher him into a Muslim life; his ringside support, the Jewish trainer Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx); and Ali’s own Christian father, played by the great Giancarlo Esposito. This sequence keeps returning to a single striking image: Smith’s face in close-up behind the speed bag he punches. It creates a flicker effect, a faintly suggestive blur. We’ll never quite see this legend clearly, it seems to promise.

Three men stand in a boxing ring in Ali.
Sony

Mann and co-writers Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson structure the story around a handful of iconic bouts, beginning with the title fight against Liston and ending with the Rumble in the Jungle, his famous 1974 face-off against George Foreman in Zaire. The boxing matches are more elegant than brutal. They cut often to Smith’s feet, emphasizing Ali’s light step. He’s like a dancer in the ring, maneuvering around the brute force of his opponents. Mann’s penchant for observing men at work with procedural clarity manifests in his bald appreciation for the boxer’s graceful physicality; the fights become ballets of strategic restraint, finding the genius in Ali’s patience — his willingness to preserve energy and wait for the exact right moment to strike.

Ali tries to get its arms around a whole lot. The storytelling can be baggy, a natural consequence of how much ground Mann covers. We see Ali scrap with those who’d prefer he not convert, and then with the Nation of Islam itself. (“I love the Nation, but it don’t own me.”) We see him stubbornly follow his own fickle libido, leading him from one lover to another, the wife role passing from Jada Pinkett Smith to Nona Gaye to Michael Michele. We see his buddy-comic relationship with the sports broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, doing a warmly funny imitation), and how the two conspired to promote the public image Ali created for the cameras. And there’s the stretch of the movie about his refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War — a principled stance that nearly cost him his career, and showed his willingness to risk that public image to remain in control of his own fate. This section could be its own movie, so heavy is it with insight into the racist institutions that saw Ali’s fame as a threat.

Ali raises his arms in Ali.
Sony

One of the fascinating contradictions of Mann’s work is that he’s obsessed with the interior life his characters conceal; what’s going on in their heads is of paramount importance, but that doesn’t mean we get a ringside view. That Smith never totally “cracks” Muhammad Ali is by design, and also probably one reason he didn’t win the Oscar. He ducks and weaves around pat psychology, holding the audience at the same remove Ali puts between himself and the champs he defeats. Maybe depicting him as a classic Mann cipher, an unknowable professional, reinforces Ali’s own refusal to be reduced or simplified or codified — to be Cassius Clay or anyone else’s version of Muhammad Ali.

Ali only really threatens to peter out in its last third, during the protracted runup to the Rumble in the Jungle. It’s the one chapter Mann might have thinned. But the film rallies for the climax, that historic match against Foreman. Pressing beyond sports-movie cliché and catharsis, Mann locates a victory of selfhood in Ali’s rope-a-dope. He’s spent the whole movie, and his whole career, resisting the plans other people make for him — the box his managers, his family, the press, and the U.S. government want to put him in. But here in the ring, during a match he’s assured would happen in Africa and on his terms, Ali ignores the chorus of “Get off the ropes,” bides his time, and wins his way.

As for Smith, he lost the Oscar but gained a new respect from an industry that would have been happy to see him fighting aliens and racing down drug dealers for the rest of his days. He’s delivered funnier performances, obviously, and more emotionally open performances, but none that simmer with such a fascinating subtext — the unfakeable glimmer of a life spent in the spotlight, holding strong to a self-made persona while pushing back against the world’s plans for your stardom. “I don’t got to be what nobody else wants me to be,” Ali says at one point in Ali. If those words ever rang true for the actor speaking them, there’s a good chance they ring truer than ever today.

Ali is now streaming on Netflix. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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