I am the Greatest! 

The makers of the biopic Ali were faced with a daunting challenge. How do you relate the life story of one of the last century’s great athletes, probably the most famous man on earth, a man who dubbed himself “The Greatest”? They chose to focus on the years 1964-1974, when boxer Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion by defeating the fearsome Sonny Liston, then transformed himself into the firebrand activist Muhammad Ali.

The tone of the film is best encapsulated by a paragraph from a lengthy 1975 interview with Ali in Playboy magazine (it’s reprinted in editor Gerald Early’s superb collection, The Muhammad Ali Reader):

I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could, financial and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t hurt his people’s dignity by doing anything that would embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I am.

There it is in a nutshell, all the contradictions that existed in Ali captured in the afterglow of his winning the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire against George Foreman and regaining the heavyweight title. (This fight is well-chronicled in the 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings.)

The decade between those championship fights saw Ali become part of the still-controversial Nation of Islam, change his name and demand that this personal choice be respected, and refuse to be drafted for the Vietnam War, which led him to be banned from boxing for three-and-a-half years (only getting a chance to return to the ring after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor as a conscientious objector). During that time, Ali (who now resides in Berrien Springs, near Benton Harbor) became more than a boxer, more than an activist, more than a clown, more than a pariah. He came to embody a divided America.

For Will Smith, who was born in 1968, portraying the young Ali through his most turbulent times (which included two marriages, with a third on the horizon after Zaire) meant immersing himself in the kind of research which only actors can engage in. It’s a combination of learning as much as possible about the person you’re going to play, but also pinpointing what made him distinctive, then portraying that convincingly. It’s a major gamble for Smith, whose screen roles and music career are based on his being perceived as an amiable good guy, but he pulls it off with aplomb. He achieves his goal to do an interpretation instead of an impersonation, to capture not just Ali’s physical traits, but his essence.

“What I really attached to in the research,” says Smith in New York, “was what I refer to as the complex simplicity of Muhammad Ali. That’s a point that [director] Michael Mann and I agreed on, and we’re trying to illuminate the simplicity of, for example, his convictions on Vietnam. His point of view was, essentially, war had been declared on black America. ‘I’m at war right here, so I’m not going to go 10,000 miles and fight some war over there when my women and children won’t be safe here.’ But American society at the time, and the different agendas that the government may have had in trying to make it easier for him to put on a uniform, was really complex. But his belief, and his horse blinders with his God, were really simple. It’s simple, but it was still really profound, the nature of his beliefs, and I think that’s what we centered on: trying to communicate his influence.”

As Smith describes, Mann put him through a complex process, something he calls the three tiers of becoming Ali. First, physical: Smith went through rigorous boxing training. Then mental and emotional, through extensive reading and interviews with those closest to the champ. The final step, spiritual, involved trying to understand what Cassius Clay gained by embracing Islam. All in all, this meant trying to grasp what it meant to go from segregated Louisville, Kentucky, to world fame, and understand how a flamboyant jokester came to embody some of the most serious issues of the last half-century.

What is it that pulls all the contradictory Alis — the graceful pugilist, the vain showman, the uneducated wordsmith, the faithful womanizer, the principled hothead, the freethinking preacher — together? For Will Smith, the key is truth.

“He lives the Christian mantra that the truth will set you free,” he explains, “and he truly believes that. He believes that if he lives the truth, then his God will deliver him from whatever evil that man could potentially try to put on him. That was his daily struggle, to live the truth.”

Ali arrives in theaters when the glow of the Atlanta Olympic Games torch-lighting ceremony is still fresh in our collective memory, but also at a time when Muslims are again being thought of as dangerous to America. Which means that remembering Muhammad Ali as he was, a troublesome and admirable figure, is newly important.

“Anyone younger than me,” says Smith, “has no idea who Muhammad Ali is. They know he’s a boxer, but they have no idea of the struggles, no idea what he means to America, and specifically to black America. So for the last two years of my life, the most important thing has been to deliver the greatness of the Greatest in beautiful cinematic form.”

Ali, which opened Christmas Day, is now playing on area screens.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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