Political Film Society - Ali

PFS Film Review


AliOf all the boxers, Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most politically savvy. The film Ali attempts to weave politics into what might otherwise seem a conventional biopic, with many minutes of fight scenes, love stories, and musical interludes. Directed by Michael Mann, whose The Insider won the Political Film Society’s award for best film exposé in 1999, Ali begins by depicting a youngster named Cassius Clay, who gains awareness of the oppression of African Americans early in life, converts to Islam under the influence of Malcolm X (played by Mario Van Peebles), renames himself Cassius X (played by Will Smith) when he first becomes world heavyweight champion by knocking out Sonny Liston (played by Michael Bentt) in 1964 at the age of twenty-two, and then is renamed Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad. Ali, however, is an articulate early opponent of the American role in Vietnam’s civil war. Of draft age, his previous deferment from military service is revoked, and he is ordered to report for induction. His conscience prevents him from doing so, so he is arrested, tried, and convicted of a violation of a law in which the maximum sentence is five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. While his case is on appeal, however, his boxing license is revoked in Illinois and New York, he is stripped of his world heavyweight title, and the legal costs deplete his earnings. Not so Howard Kosell (played by Jon Voight), who respects Ali’s integrity and keeps his name before the television audience while even his so-called best friends desert him. Soon, Ali gets back in the limelight by arranging a fight with reigning heavyweight champ Joe Frazier (played by James Toney) in Atlanta, as Georgia has no boxing commission. When the Supreme Court finally rules 8-0 that Ali was wrongfully given an induction notice, he is eager to regain the heavyweight title. Don King (played by Mykelti Williamson) then arranges a match in Kinshasa, Zaïre, where President-for-Life Mobutu (played by Malick Bowens) puts up $20 million, with George Forman (played by Charles Shufford). The film ends as Ali knocks out Forman and regains his world heavyweight title in 1974 at the age of thirty-two, though of course he fought many other fights, earlier as well as later. Titles at the end indicate that he now lives in Michigan with his third wife. Gratuitously interlaced throughout Ali are scenes of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film shows the ugly politics within both boxing and the Nation of Islam, that is, how Ali was used by others. The most eloquent speech is Ali’s explanation for refusing to agree to be drafted -- that he saw no reason for a black man to fight for the white man to kill poor people in Asia when the white man in America has never stood up for the black man. The speech clearly provides the explanation for the government’s desire to draft him or jail him, but the unanimous Supreme Court ruling is based on the clumsy bypassing of due process. Many who have followed Ali’s career in the media will be surprised to see such a coherent presentation of a man of conviction and integrity, and Ali’s tagline cautions prospective filmviewers accordingly: "Forget what you think you know." It should therefore be no surprise that the Political Film Society has nominated Ali as best film exposé for 2001. MH

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