Directed by: Clare Lewins
Premise: A biographical documentary about boxer and activist Muhammad Ali. The film examines Ali’s career as a sportsman but also his political activism and his family life.
What Works: I Am Ali provides an overview of Muhammad Ali’s legacy and it is a cinematic sampler platter of the major events in his life. Ali was a great athlete but he was also a political figure and a family man and the movie crosscuts between those three aspects of his identity. The title of I Am Ali gives the impression that the film may take an autobiographical approach (like 2008’s Tyson) but Ali only appears in archival footage. Instead the movie explains who he was through the testimony of those around him. I Am Ali consists of many chapters in which a different person comments on their relationship with Ali in that phase or aspect of his life. This includes trainers and other fighters and especially Ali’s ex-wives and children. This may be the most impressive aspect of I Am Ali; the movie has plenty of the bravado that characterized Ali’s public persona but I Am Ali also reveals the man’s softer side. Ali made audio recordings in which he talked with his children and they reveal his paternalistic nature. While the movie does not get in-depth on Ali’s parenting style, the audio does allow for some intimacy with a larger-than-life figure. Naturally, the main focus of I Am Ali is his boxing career and the filmmakers explain how the combination of footwork and powerful punches made him a menacing fighter. But Ali’s greatness as a boxer was also due to his talent as a showman. As documented in this film, Ali was a master of the media well before other athletes learned to use it effectively and his charisma and trash talking skills intimidated his opponents and rallied the crowd. As great an athlete as he was, Ali’s success at self-promotion turned his fights into must-see spectacles and he created a mythology around himself. As a public figure, Ali turned that public persona onto issues he cared about such as advancing civil rights and opposing the war in Vietnam. One of I Am Ali’s better segments addresses his Esquire cover in which he was depicted as the martyr St. Sebastian. This anecdote pulls together many of the various aspects of Ali’s personality and it reveals that he was someone of considerable intelligence and self-awareness. Muhammad Ali lived a full life and I Am Ali weaves these various aspects together in ways that sync together organically and logically and makes the movie satisfactorily engaging.
What Doesn’t: I Am Ali is a mostly conventional biographical documentary, recounting Ali’s life through an assembly of archival footage and contemporary interviews. It’s a polished and professional piece of work but there’s not much to it that’s revolutionary or revelatory. Those who are familiar with Ali’s life story won’t find much new here and the movie defers to Ali’s legend as “The Greatest.” On the more controversial aspects of Ali’s legacy, such as his refusal to fight in Vietnam, the movie includes no critical voices nor does it point out that Ali faced lighter consequences (he never went to prison) than others who refused the draft. I Am Ali also misses some opportunities for depth. The movie does not delve deeply into his Muslim faith or address the contradictions between his religious identity and his behavior, namely his unfaithful marriages. In the 1980s Muhammad Ali developed a relationship with boxer Mike Tyson and I Am Ali includes footage of the two heavyweight champions together, focusing on their mutual respect. However, I Am Ali makes no mention of Tyson’s later conviction for sexual assault or how that may have impacted their relationship. The movie entirely skips over Ali’s late period and his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
DVD extras: Additional interviews.
Bottom Line: I Am Ali provides a primer on who Muhammad Ali was and why he was important to boxing and to American culture. For young viewers and those who are unfamiliar with his life story, I Am Ali makes an excellent introduction.
Episode: #598 (June 12, 2016)