Fifty years after he won his first heavyweight world championship in an upset over Sonny Liston, a new documentary examines the spiritual and personal side of boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s fame.
Directed by Clare Lewins, “I Am Ali” is a thoughtful and insightful look into the three-time heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medalist who, at 72, is still arguably the most famous American in the world.
The film, from the producers of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” opens nationwide this week, and Friday at Village 8 Theatres.
While the film doesn’t break much new ground—the Greatest of All Time’s life and career is well-known history, especially in Louisville, his hometown—its use of Ali’s personal audio recordings provides an intimate glimpse into the legend’s personal life. Ali had a habit of recording his conversations, especially with his kids, and these informal, private interactions offer a warm, sweet balance to the champ’s brash, boisterous public persona, on full display through extensive archival footage.
Ali is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease, which greatly affects his speech, so no new interviews were conducted with him for the film. Three of his nine children (Maryum, Hana and Muhammad Ali Jr.) and his ex-wife Veronica contribute at length, as does his brother Rahman and former business manager Gene Kilroy, along with sports journalists, boxing insiders, friends and fans. Louisville plays a prominent role in the first part of the film as the backdrop for Ali’s early days as amateur boxer Cassius Clay Jr.
A particularly poignant interview with Joe Frazier’s son also places their legendary boxing feud in a new context. Perhaps Ali never forgave Frazier for becoming the world champion after he was stripped of his title for refusing to register for the Vietnam War draft, even though Frazier was among a group of elite black athletes who supported Ali’s conscientious objections on religious grounds. The film makes clear that on some level, Ali saw their public spats as mere show business, part of the art of being The Greatest of All Time. But Frazier, a gentle, reticent man, took Ali’s words to heart, though his son Marvis reveals that the two men did reconcile before Frazier’s death in 2011.
Ultimately, what “I Am Ali” offers is an attempt to explore the spiritual component of Ali’s fame. His appeal to people all over the world as a symbol of thoughtful political and social protest and of triumph over adversity transcends his athletic skills and on-camera charisma. Did he create his destiny, or at some level, was it always in him, waiting to be brought out? Is that potential inside of us all? “I Am Ali” doesn’t offer pat answers, but offers plenty of personal and public moments for reflection.
View the trailer for “I Am Ali”: