ALI'S MESSAGE SHINES THROUGH IN A NEW DOC
ALMOST THREE years since the great Muhammad Ali died, a two-part documentary, What's My Name, debuting May 14 on HBO, brings back the iconic fighter's voice. Relying solely on archival footage, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) retells Ali's story—from his success as a young amateur through his postcareer health struggles—almost exclusively by using clips of Ali talking, essentially narrating his own life.
The loquacious champ, of course, is perfectly suited for this approach. As Malcolm X says at one point in the film, "Ali is probably more capable of speaking for himself than any man in this country." And the result feels appropriate in this era of empowered athletes, who've grown accustomed to sharing their thoughts, unfiltered, with the world. "Muhammad Ali transcended sports in a way the world had never seen before," co--executive producer LeBron James says. "He showed us all the courage and conviction it takes to stand up for what you believe in."
Indeed, the most inspiring moments come early on, as Ali struggles to be recognized by his chosen name. (The documentary's title comes from Ali's repeated taunting of Ernie Terrell during their 1967 bout, after Terrell continued to use Ali's "slave name," Cassius Clay.) In those days, and later in his protest against the Vietnam War, viewers see a black celebrity fighting against an establishment trying to muzzle him. "It's about a man who stood up for his principles, fought for what was right, paid for it, was willing to die for it, suffer for it, and never wavered, never blinked," Fuqua says.
But the cinema verité setup also leaves an incomplete picture at times. Without commentary or present-day interviews, it's impossible to know what Ali was like away from the cameras. His four marriages and financial woes are largely glossed over.
The film's second half opens immediately after Ali's first loss, in 1971, to Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century. Three years later he reclaimed his title with wins over Frazier and George Foreman. Original music brings new life to the boxing sequences, but there's no time to celebrate Ali's triumphs, particularly knowing the physical punishment that accompanied them. The sport "was hell," he says, and it only got worse during a career-ending 1--3 stretch. The film that hands the mike over to one of history's best talkers resorts to subtitles as Parkinson's takes its toll.
At its core, What's My Name is a celebration of Ali's voice, and his words still pack a punch. Beyond gaining celebrity and selling fights, he spread messages that only become more powerful with time.
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