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There has been no shortage of films, both documentary and narrative, exploring the life of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Clare Lewins‘ new documentary offers little that we didn’t already know, but it presents a touchingly personal and up-close look at the man via extensive interviews with family members, his closest friends and associates, and several of his notable opponents. Highlighted by vintage audio recordings of the fighter playfully interacting with his young children, I Am Ali is a worthy but not necessarily essential addition to the canon of Ali-related films.
The film dutifully touches on the highlights of his boxing career and tumultuous personal and political life, albeit in nonchronological and not comprehensive fashion. But it offers a plethora of personal accounts, practically all of which are unabashedly laudatory, that provide a fuller picture of its subject’s complex personality, even if the results border on hagiography.
We hear from his brother Rahman, who recounts how Ali told him as a child that he would become the most famous man in the world; his ex-wife Veronica Porsche, who tears up while referencing his current debilitated state due to Parkinson’s disease (in one of the film’s few oblique references to his condition); his son Muhammad Ali Jr., who comments about the difficulty of living up to a father who was “The Greatest”; and his daughters Maryum and Hana, who consistently describe him as the most loving of fathers.
That fatherly devotion is on ample display via both previously unseen home movies and those audio recordings, accompanied by graphics of sound waves, which Ali apparently taped for both family and historical purposes. The interactions are charming and funny, whether it’s Ali testing their knowledge of their ABCs or patiently listening to his young daughter imploring him not to come out of retirement in his quest for a fourth heavyweight title. “You’re old!” she cries.
His former business manager Gene Kilroy relates the moving tale of the fighter’s interactions with a young boy dying of leukemia. Visiting the sick child in the hospital, Ali told him, “I’m going to beat George Foreman and you’re going to beat cancer.” Sadly, only one of the predictions turned out to be true.
Singer Tom Jones amusingly relates how on a visit to Ali’s training camp he was induced to get into the ring with the champ, who playfully hit the floor after receiving a mock punch. The resulting photograph of Jones taunting the supine Ali was actually taken seriously by more than a few people.
One of the film’s more evocative segments concerns the famous 1968 Esquire cover photograph of Ali posing like the martyred Saint Sebastian, his body punctured by arrows. Former art director George Lois comments about the difficulty of keeping his ever-animated subject still enough to get the complicated shot.
George Foreman, with whom Ali fought the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle,” clearly holds no grudge against his former rival, calling him “the greatest man I ever met.” Mike Tyson says that he was inspired to become a fighter after a visit by Ali to his reform school. And Marvis Frazier, the son of the fighter with whom Ali had the most contentious relationship, touchingly relates that Ali and his father came to peace with each other shortly before Joe’s death.
The voice that you don’t hear in the film is Ali’s himself, save in archival footage and recordings. But despite his absence, presumably necessitated by his illness, his presence hovers over the proceedings with his usual authority.
Production: Fisheye Films in association with Passion Pictures
Director/screenwriter: Clare Lewins
Producers: Clare Lewins, George Chignell, Greg Hobden
Executive producers: John Battsek, Simon Chinn
Director of photography: Stuart Luck
Editor: Reg Wrench
Rated PG, 111 min.
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