Starring Will Smith Directed by Michael Mann
MPAA: Rated R for some language and brief violence.
Reviewed by Marvin X (12/28/01)
Cast overview, first billed only: Will Smith .... Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali
Jamie Foxx .... Drew 'Bundini' Brown
Jon Voight .... Howard Cosell
Mario Van Peebles .... Malcolm X
Ron Silver .... Angelo Dundee
Jeffrey Wright (I) .... Howard Bingham
Mykelti Williamson .... Don King
Jada Pinkett Smith .... Sonji
Nona M. Gaye .... Belinda
Michael Michele .... Veronica
Joe Morton .... Chauncy Eskridge
Paul Rodriguez (I) .... Dr. Ferdie Pacheco
Barry Shabaka Henley .... Herbert Muhammad
Giancarlo Esposito .... Cassius Clay, Sr.
Laurence Mason .... Luis Sarria
Look at the present condition of Ali. Look at the present proliferation of poetry: gansta rap poetry has contributed to the desecration of black people. How did we go from revolutionary BAM poetry to the reactionary rap songs about bitch, ho and motherfucker? Sonia Sanchez says the rappers simply put on stage what was happening in the black revolutionary movement and our community in general: the disrespect of women.
Even spoken word is at a pivotal point of becoming crassly commercial, promoted in night clubs along with alcohol and other drugs. Certainly, this is no atmosphere to teach truth which is the poet's sole duty, not to be a buffoon or entertainer. Poetry is a sacred art: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God’. One club owner stopped a successful poetry night when it became a butcher shop, patrons trading poetry for sex, more or less’. Academic poetry never made it in the hood, since it is essentially a foreign language. Thank God for poetry slams, they have allowed the masses to appreciate poetry, seizing it from the academic barbarians who killed the word in abstract nonsense only a rocket scientist or linguist can understand. Perhaps, this was Elijah's point to me. But, finally, all poetry uses devices such as metaphor and simile which may confuse rather than "make it plain" in the style of Elijah and Malcolm, even though they too used these devices. Elijah didn't stop Muhammad Ali from being a poet!
"Refusing induction, Marvin X fled to Canada. 'I departed from the United States "to preserve my life and liberty, and to pursue happiness".' "-loc. cit.
Malcolm X recruited Cassius Clay into the Nation of Islam. Malcolm's oratory influenced me to consider Elijah's Islamic Black Nationalism while I was a student at Oakland's Merritt College, along with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Ernie Allen and others who became the new black intelligentsia, the direct product of Malcolm, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Elijah. When Malcolm X spoke before seven thousand students at U.C. Berkeley's Sproul Plaza (1964), I was in the audience. When he was assassinated, we wore black armbands to express our grief at San Francisco State University, actor Danny Glover among us. In truth, we were too confused to do more, which was the devil's purpose: confuse, divide and conquer.
Although Ali and I were followers of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Ali followed closer to the letter than I-I followed the spirit of Elijah. Elijah told us to resist the draft, go to prison if necessary. Ali followed orders-but I was under the influence of my Panther friends who said we should not only resist the draft, but resist arrest as well-so rather than go to jail, I fled to Toronto, Canada, joining other resisters. But before I went into exile, I met Muhammad Ali at the Chicago home of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. After Eldridge Cleaver was placed on house arrest for allegedly causing a riot at a Black Power conference on the campus of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. (along with Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Kathleen Neal, later Cleaver), Ramparts magazine permitted me to interview Ali in place of Cleaver who was a staff writer.
To the disappointment of Ramparts, Cleaver and myself, Elijah called Ali into a room. When he returned, he said to me, "Brother, the Messenger said not to do the interview." He added, "This is the man I'm willing to die for-what he says, I do." So I didn't get the interview. I returned to California with the disappointing news. Ramparts eventually did a story on Ali.
This was 1967-a few months later I was exiled in Toronto. After Toronto, I went underground to Chicago, arriving in time to see troops occupy the south side and the torching of the west side, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Oakland, the Black Panthers responded to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. by staging a shootout with the police in which Eldridge Cleaver was wounded and Little Bobby Hutton murdered. With the FBI on my heels, I left Chicago and arrived in Harlem, joining the Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez,Askia M. Toure', Don L. Lee, Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Sun Ra, Milford Graves, Barbara Ann Teer and others for the second Harlem Renaissance. But my draft problems weren't over-coming back from Montreal, Canada one weekend, I was apprehended at the border and returned to California for trial-I resisted a second time, fleeing to Mexico City before sentencing.
It is now 1970. In Mexico City, I met the sons of Muhammad Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad (son of Elijah Muhammad), who were attending the University of the Americas. The sons, Elijah and Sultan, were in a kind of exile from the madness of Black Muslim Chicago-they didn't receive Muhammad Speaks newspaper, of `which I was now foreign editor and their father manager-so I gave them my copies. They were talk of the town. The African American ex-patriot community informed me Elijah's grandsons didn't believe his teachings. I discovered they were right about Elijah, nicknamed Sonny, who was caught bringing marijuana across the border, among other things.
I arrived at their casa for a party to see Sonny dancing with a white woman. Sonny let me use his birth certificate to cross the border to get my woman. Yes, I was "Elijah Muhammad." But as I crossed the border, my woman was on a plane to Mexico City. At least Sultan had a Mexican girl. Sultan eventually became the personal pilot for his grandfather, Elijah Muhammad. After journeying to Belize, Central America, against the advice of my Mexico City contact, revolutionary artist Elizabeth Catlett Mora, I was arrested for teaching black power and "communism," deported to the US and served five months in federal prison for draft evasion. With this background, I entered the cinema to view Ali, the story of a man and a time that shook America and the world.
"For his court appearance, Marvin X prepared an angry and eloquent statement, which was later published in Black Scholar (April-May 1971), 'There comes a time’when a man's conscience will no longer allow him to participate in the absurd.' He recalled with disgust the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision which pronounced that 'a black man has no rights which a white man is bound to respect.' And in ringing tones he challenged the court's authority to contravene his religious and philosophical principles, 'But there you sit’with the blood of my ancestors dripping from your hands! And you seek to judge me for failing to appear in a court for sentencing on a charge of refusing induction, of refusing to go l0,000 miles to kill my brothers in order to insure the perpetuation of White Power in Southeast Asia and throughout the world.' " --loc. cit. ALI
The name Muhammad Ali means the one who is most high and worthy of much praise. In Ali, we saw a man arise from "Clay" or dirt to become the most recognized person on earth. Will Smith deserves much praise for his portrayal of Ali, bringing him alive, making him believable. This was no easy task because of the character's complexity as folk hero with many dimensions: athlete, religious militant, poet, lover man. As athlete we must give credit to the camera man for so many close-ups that transformed and reinforced Will Smith's image as Ali. Actually close-ups seemed to be the dominant camera angle throughout the movie and they worked to bring forth the beauty of the African skin tones as well as reflect character in various situations. The camera catches Ali's third wife Veronica Porche (Michelle Michael) at an angle that reflects the absolute golden beauty of her skin as she and Ali stroll in the African sun. There are great pan shots of people in the streets of Ghana and Zaire. The sound was awesome when Ali was in the ring punching or getting punched. The sound vibrated our bodies, making us a virtual part of the movie.
We meet Ali as he was meeting Malcolm X (Melvin Van Peebles) and being converted to a Black Muslim. Malcolm converted an entire generation, especially youth in the north. Martin Luther King, Jr. reigned in the south, having almost no influence with us college students. We looked upon Martin as the chief bootlicker of the white man. As Malcolm, Melvin Van Peebles did a credible job. Of course he is no Denzel Washington (Spike Lee's Malcolm X), but at least he looked like Malcolm-although his delivery was weak-he lacked the fire of Denzel, but was acceptable and his relationship with Muhammad Ali clearly established an intimate friendship until they were forced apart by Nation of Islam politics which the movie pointed out was not apart from U.S. government politics of intervention and neutralization. We see the agents inside the NOI. Of course the NOI, along with the Black Panthers, was the main black organization on the FBI's list of subversives.
Hoover and his Cointelpro was determined to prevent the rise of a black messiah who could unite African Americans. Malcolm and Martin were marked for elimination. Muhammad Ali slipped through to become hero of the Afro-Asian, Islamic world. After all, he defied the American government in a manner no one has until Osama Bin Laden. We have to draw the parallel between these two because they are heroes of the oppressed, especially the oppressed Muslim masses of Africa and Asia. The movie gave us the impression Ali was more a hero in Africa than with African Americans. One wonders whether this was deliberate, to dampen Ali's image in the eyes of the hero starved African American community.
Let's be clear, Ali was in the tradition of the defiant, rebellious bad nigguh: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson. Ali was doing all right until he sent a shout out to the world, "No Viet cong never called me a nigguh."And we hear Danny Glover may be added to America's bad nigguh list, since Oliver North is encouraging Americans to boycott his movies because Danny made statements against military tribunals. Ali made it crystal clear he was going to say and do whatever the hell he wanted. America made him pay the price for being a free black man. What if the other mentally enslaved black men followed suit?
Jada Pinkett Smith as Ali's first wife, Sonji, was rather conservative in light of the character who was quite simply a so-called Negro who rejected Islam, initially accepting it solely because of her man. I wanted her to be more of a slut, a hard headed, stiff necked, rebellious negress. She was some of that, but maybe the script limited her because I know she has the talent as an actress to be more of a bitch than she was. Belinda (Nona Gaye), his second wife, was more sassy than Sonji in some ways, especially in her condemnation of Herbert Muhammad (Shabaka Hemsley), Ali's manager and the NOI, particularly when Ali was nearly broke. Her critical remarks were utterly shocking since they came from someone who grew up in the Nation of Islam.
For a Muslim woman, she was equal in boldness with Ali. Herbert Muhammad is one of the classic characters in NOI history and Shabaka did a fairly good job representing him, although we don't get the sense he was one of the most powerful men in the NOI and the first prominent black fight manager. If there had not been a Herbert Muhammad, there probably would not have been a Don King.
The character Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall) was rather weak and one dimensional, mostly negative. Realistically, it is impossible to downplay Elijah Muhammad in the drama of African America. He educated two of our greatest heroes, Malcolm and Ali, not to mention Farrakhan and even myself and thousands more brothers and sisters throughout this wicked land. Don't make me quote writer Fahizah Alim, "Elijah Muhammad was like a momma, even if she was a ho' on the corner telling lies to get money to feed us, she gave us life and kept us living until we could stand on our feet’" Basically, we see him suspending Malcolm and later Ali.
I think the best supporting actor in this film would have to be Jamie Foxx as the legendary Drew Bodini, Ali's sideman. He was beyond belief as the tragic-comic Bodini, who seemed to inspire much of Ali's poetry and serve as cheerleader and confidant. Howard Bingham (Jeffery Wright), Ali's friend and photographer, should have served as sane counterpoint to the insane antics and witchcraft of Bodini, but he remains muted behind his camera, although we know by nature the photographer sees everything and often advises his client, constantly whispering words of wisdom from his vantage point.
These characters were poets above all else, beginning with Malcolm, although we heard very little of his rhetoric, then Ali, Bodini, Don King (Mykelti Williamson). How Don King escaped the rat image is beyond me, but he did by donning the poet's persona. We must give Don credit for ushering in the age of the multimillion dollar fight purse. But we had to sigh a little sadness that the murderous land of Mubutu's Zaire was the scene of the Rumble in the Jungle, as if anywhere else in Africa was any different, i.e., devoid of a dictatorial regime. In Africa, Nkrumah taught, every state is a military state! Last but not least, Jon Voight (Howard Cossell), must be given credit for bringing the legendary Cossell to life, but it is clear Ali made Cossell, not the other way around, and in no way were they equals: Cossell, as media pimp, represented America at its worst --Ali's verbal sparring made Howard Cossell's world larger than life and sometimes smaller when Cossell made the mistake of asking Ali if he was the man he used to be. Ali retorted, "Howard, your wife said you ain't the man you used to be..."
The music score weaved in and out of the action at proper moments, making it delightful and meaningful, although it's hard to imitate Sam Cooke. The scenes in Africa made us feel the universal love for Ali, especially when the people were chanting "Ali" -again, the sound reached inside us, grabbing us into itself. Finally, we must credit Will Smith for transforming himself into all the things that make up Ali, his political consciousness, his religiosity, his morality and immorality, his media savvy and especially his poetry. Of course director
Michael Mann must be credited with shaping the entire film. It was long but I didn't want it to end, especially when it did with the Rumble in the Jungle, the Foreman/Ali match in Zaire. But Ali's story is so much a part of modern American history that it could have gone on forever. Imagine him commenting on the events of 911. We understand that he has been requested to make public service announcements supporting America's war on terrorism. Would this be a more dramatic ending: the people's champ who fought against oppression, finally broken down to a servant of the oppressor? It may or may not be dramatic, but the tragic truth is that Ali is a member of Warith Din Muhammad's sect that was known for flag waving long before 911. Even before his transition in 1975, Warith had rejected the teachings of his father, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, in favor of orthodox Islam, dismissing the Black Nationalism of Elijah for Americanism, so it is not whack for President Bush to call upon Ali to be the "voice of America" to the Muslim world, nor for Ali to accept. Remember when my friend, Eldridge Cleaver, returned from exile waving the flag-the radical community was horrified one of their leaders had sold out.
Let ALI end with the Rumble in the Jungle. One purpose of that fight was to reestablish ties between Africa and African America. This was of great significance for Pan Africanism, including the therapeutic healing of divisive wounds in the colonized psyche of Africans and African Americans. As I said, Ali was indeed bigger than America-the first Muslim heavyweight champion of the world, the first African American athlete to unabashedly recognize our Motherland by staging a fight there. Ali was a man of the times, not by blending or following, but leading the way. The hero is first of all a leader. He extends the mythology of his people, like Coltrane taking us to A Love Supreme. Ali's mission was transcending our colonial education, breaking the bonds of our Christian mentality with its impediments of passivity and submission, although Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to transform the Christian myth-ritual with his liberation theology. Ali's athletic prowess and discipline, his political consciousness, was an example for all fighters, especially freedom fighters around the world. If indeed, our hero has been co-opted, let us be mature enough to realize humans are not made of stone and we know in real life people change, not always for the good-thus the danger of hero worship and thus the Islamic dictum: nothing deserves to worshipped except Allah.
--Marvin X, Editor, Black Bird Press News & Review