Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Review: The Complete Muhammad Ali by Ishmael Reed

The Complete Muhammad Ali
Ishmael Reed Gets in the Ring
Ishmael Reed is one of the English language’s most important contemporary writers. His novels reveal a witticism and ironic sense found in very few other writers of the period. His essays and articles challenge commonly held dogmas in both mainstream thought and among those outside the popular mind. An intelligent reader of his works cannot help but be challenged by the points he raises, his use of the language, and the courage present. Liberals, socialists, right wingers and libertarians; men and women, LBG and T–everyone is open to Reed’s insightful and piercing pen as he points us all to an essential fact–our shared humanity and its manipulation by the powerful and their wannabes.

Reed’s mammoth biography of the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali, will be published in July. Appropriately titled The Complete Muhammad Ali, this book is more than just a biography of the man the world calls Muhammad Ali. It is also a history of the sport and business of boxing, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, and a myriad of other associated topics–even the history of the African continent. It also serves as a critique of sports in a capitalist system, the domination of the US sports media by white (often openly racist) men, and the Ali hagiography business. From the late jazz violinist Billy Bang to Hugh Masekela; from Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Howard Cosell, this text is greater than the massive sum of its parts.
Simply put, it is a fascinating document. I say this as a fan of Ishmael Reeds writing and as a historian very interested in discovering and publicizing the histories we are not told. The book is comprised of Reed’s detailed and entertaining narrative intermingled with numerous interviews from people in numerous walks of life.

Reed challenges the commonly held idea that Ali was the first racially proud boxer since Jack Johnson. He does so by citing incidents of racism Joe Louis and other fighters before Ali experienced and their refusal to bend to them. He also argues, rightfully so, that the racism those men lived with was rawer and more violent than that which has existed since the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, at least as far as Black celebrities were concerned.

In writing this book, Ishmael Reed has created the most complete biography of one of history’s most famous personalities. In addition, he has provided the reader (and the world) with a revelatory look at the world Muhammad Ali resided in. It was a world of money, racial animosity, religion, and politics. It was (and is) a world peopled with luminaries and egotists, humble souls and family. It is a tale not only of a life that reacted to the times, but a detailed look at the influence Muhammad Ali and the others discussed in the book had on those times.

Like almost any human being, Muhammad Ali was a complex person. The fact that he spent so much time on the world stage led some to think his contradictions were weaknesses or signs of something less than genuine. Ishmael Reed has done a detailed and well-rounded presentation of the man and his complexities. It was and is a life representative of the times. This quote from Harry Belafonte makes the point quite well: “He was the poster boy for what the struggle was all about.”

Not everyone who appears in this biography agrees with Belafonte. Some do not even consider Ali the greatest boxer of all time, pointing instead to Sugar Ray Robinson and even Joe Louis. I am not enough of a boxing fan to have any opinion, but suffice it to say, these comments will certainly raise old arguments amongst those who are fans. The more important aspect of Reed’s interviews and often confrontational challenge to the legend of Ali is to his status as a civil rights champion on par with Martin Luther King, Jr. Reed is not alone in this perspective. Indeed, numerous interviewees agree with Reed, while allowing for the fact that Ali’s domination of the world stage—in part because of his status as a sport champion—lent the civil rights struggle an international cachet it was unlikely to attain without the commanding presence of Muhammad Ali. Furthermore, argue many of those who appear in The Complete Muhammad Ali, it was Ali’s stand against the US military draft that clinched his public status as someone who was more than a boxer, more than an athlete.

Personally speaking, I concur completely with this latter sentiment. When Ali refused the military draft, it validated my growing opposition to the US war in Vietnam and called the entire US imperial operation into question among some of my older and more knowledgeable peers. This phenomenon repeated itself millions of times in cities, gyms and schoolyards around the United States and the world.

One question Reed asks every interviewee is why they think Muhammad Ali is so well liked now by the establishment. Every single response to this query, whether from a member of the Nation Of Islam, a media pundit or a black radical, is essentially the same. Ali is so well liked now, they say, because he is “safe.” His illness has rendered him often incapable of speech and he often seems to be weaker than his closest confidantes claim he actually is. Some of the answers also mention Ali’s age, pointing out that white America has always found old Black men “harmless.” Critic Jill Nelson goes the furthest, remarking that white America always found Ali to be safe as long as he was in the ring. It was when he acted publicly outside the realm of boxing that he scared and angered the white establishment. White America likes their Black men in cages, whether they are made of elastic ropes or steel bars.

The Complete Muhammad Ali is twelve solid rounds of writing. Throughout the text, Ishmael Reed jabs and juts fades and dances. He even plays a little rope-a-dope. In the end, his biography of Muhammad Ali stands above its competition. It is not always pretty and parts of it leave the legend of Ali somewhat bloodied. In doing so, it rings closer to the truth than the sanitized tale today’s public has accepted as real. This text is an in depth and studied look at a man, a sport, a nation and a history. In his contemplation of all of these, Ishmael Reed paints a canvas that is simultaneously darkened with shadows and brightened with hope; defined by history that is certain to be riven with a fair amount of controversy. Muhammad Ali became and remains much bigger than the man who bears that name. Ishmael Reed’s biography of Ali is similar in its breadth and scope.
Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

From the Archives: Marvin X reviews the film Ali 

"A notable and articulate advocacy of black conscientious objection came from the Nation of Islam. In 1942 Elijah Muhammad was arrested in Chicago and convicted of sedition, conspiracy and violation of the draft laws. After serving time in a federal penitentiary until 1946, Muhammad continued in his beliefs. Two decades later he vigorously urged his followers to refuse participation in the Vietnam War. Among those who listened were world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Marvin X."
Lorenzo Thomas, University of Houston
Starring Will Smith Directed by Michael Mann
MPAA: Rated R for some language and brief violence.
Runtime: 158
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color

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 
Some things in life are a cause for hesitation-we know we're not walking on solid ground, yet we go forward into the unknown like a brave soldier ordered into battle. This is how I approached ALI, knowing this movie was bound to touch me in a personal way, since Muhammad Ali and I were the two best known Muslims who refused to fight in Vietnam or anywhere for the white man. Ali was in sports, I was part of the Black Arts Movement, also associated with the Black Panthers. 

Elijah told Ali to give up sports, that the world was not made for sport and play. Ali refused. Elijah told me to give up poetry, that he was after the plainest way to get truth to our people: poetry, he said, was a science our people didn't understand. 

I refused. Was Elijah right? 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 worshiped except Allah.

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