Ali (Cert 15)


The Oscar nominees have

been announced, and it's no

surprise that Will Smith has

been recognised for his best

performance yet.

It's a

talented impersonation of

perhaps the world's most recognisable

man. He even manages to capture the

way Muhammad Ali moves in the ring

¿ which is more than any real

heavyweight boxer has been able to do.

For those who did not live through Ali's

heyday, the film gives a memorable round-up of his

best moments in the ring and his wittiest

moments outside it, along with an idea of how

brave it was of him to refuse to serve in Vietnam.

Ali himself has watched the movie six times.

Michael Mann is one of Hollywood's most

visually inspired directors, and his biopic

contains several awesome moments.

Our first glimpse of George Foreman

captures his ferocious power, without a word

needing to be spoken. Only pictures (and good

acting by Smith) are needed to show Ali's

dawning realisation, on arriving for his 'rumble

in the jungle' with Foreman in Zaire, that he is

a worldwide role model.

To a limited extent, the movie also lets us

inside Ali's head. It makes us share in his sense

of betrayal when his friends and colleagues

desert him as soon as he starts losing, though

it fails to show us why he takes them back into

his camp when he begins winning again.

The movie is at its best when showing that

Ali's bottom line is not his hatred of white oppression, nor his susceptibility to a

pretty face, but his self-belief.

But this will of iron is not always

agreeable, least of all when he is

punishing his women for not obeying

him; but you do end up respecting him

for being his own man.

The movie is least successful in the

moments when Ali is not being his own

man. The appeal for him of Malcolm X's

defiance of white power is reasonably


Much less so is Ali's attraction to

Elijah Mohammed¿s Nation of Islam,

whose unique blend of greed and

loopiness is toned down (I imagine) to spare

the real Ali's feelings. No mention of the

Nation's belief in flying saucers here.

And that's really the

problem. Ali isn't dead, and

neither he nor his fans

would have tolerated a

movie that seriously

questioned the depth of his political and

religious beliefs, held him to account

for enriching the appalling Don King,

seriously analysed his foolish refusal to

give up boxing in time to save his

health, or asked awkward questions

about why he was so rotten at personal


The nearest thing to a loving

relationship here is the one between

Ali and the white sports commentator

Howard Cosell (brilliantly played by

another Oscar nominee, Jon Voight);

but British audiences will notice

how similar it is to the one between Ali

and our own Harry Carpenter.

How much of it is real, then, and how

much of it is down to Ali's shrewd

manipulation of the media?

The lasting impression the film leaves

is of Ali's brilliant flair for self-publicity. But we already knew about that.

Ali's importance was that to a new

generation of black people, he was

more than just another athlete.

He was as uneducated as any other

black heavyweight boxer from the

sticks, but he was witty and made

everyone laugh, whatever their race. He

was as good-looking as any film star,

but he also had 'attitude'.

Michael Mann's film captures the

glory of the myth. I just wish it had had

the Ali-style guts to look behind it.

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