In 1964, the new heavyweight champ, one Cassius Clay, 22, announced he had joined the Nation of Islam (converted by Malcolm X) and would henceforth be known as Muhammed Ali. Despite his amazing physical skill, he was loathed by the sporting establishment and, later, by the American Establishment at large. Why? For converting to Islam (his own father rightly thought the “Black Muslim” sect was exploiting him), and for refusing to fight in Vietnam, for which he was stripped of his title in 1967. Perhaps worse still, he was loud, witty, brash, and utterly immodest. In short, he was made to pay for not conforming to the accepted image of the “good” black sports hero of the day.
The movie charts ten years of Ali’s life, culminating with his regaining of the title in 1974, in Zaire. By this time, Ali was a revered world figure, especially in Africa.
This movie, despite the excellent cast, is often something Ali rarely was: flabby and dull. At two and a half hours, it’s surprising how much of the well-known story Michael Mann does not tell. Hangers-on wander around, unmentioned. Two or three wives come and go, unexplained. There’s a strung-together, unedited feel to the story.
And though the bulked-up and exuberant Will Smith (nominated for an Academy Award for Ali) doesn’t much look like Will Smith in this movie, he doesn’t much look like Ali either. Likewise, John Voight (another nominee, playing Shakespeare-quoting, toupee-toting sportscaster Howard Cosell) is not so much made up as embalmed for display in Red Square. You might want to stay home and rent When We Were Kings instead.