Critic’s Notebook: The Big Screen Was Too Small for Muhammad Ali’s Charisma

'When We Were Kings'

The sports legend was a born showman — the Elvis, James Brown and Marlon Brando of boxing rolled into one — who kept filmmakers on the ropes.

“You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait till I whip George Foreman’s behind...”

The poet laureate of the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali was a natural screen performer, effortlessly blurring the line between sports and show business. Quite apart from being arguably the greatest boxing champion in history, and certainly the most beloved, his mischievous wit and towering self-confidence made him into a magnetic showman. He once called himself the "Elvis of boxing.” For once, he was being modest: He was the Elvis, the James Brown and the Marlon Brando of boxing rolled into one. Cameras adored him, and the feeling was mutual. Ali was The Greatest, the Louisville Lip, the Black Superman. And he never let you forget it.

Ever since Ali first ditched his “slave name” of Cassius Clay, earning worldwide infamy as an anti-war protestor, Muslim convert and contentious civil rights champion, filmmakers have tried to squeeze his outsized charisma into the reductive frame of the big screen. But always with mixed results. He may have had a high-wattage movie-star personality, but it mostly proved too volatile, too contradictory, too complex for any simplifying cinematic gaze. In his prime, the real Ali was forever dancing around the ring, floating and stinging, myth-making and mystifying. Movies could barely keep up with the constant rope-a-dope of his colorful life story.

Ali was not well served by dramatizations of his life, even when he played the starring role himself. In The Greatest (1977), made while he was still boxing, the three-time world champion stiffly impersonates his younger self as an anodyne biopic hero. Ali’s loose-cannon braggadocio seems defeated by the demands of scripted acting, especially when paired with screen heavyweights like James Earl Jones, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Duvall. The death of director Tom Gries during production did not help matters. Still, at least the fight footage looks genuine, mainly because it is.

A later attempt to make a more measured biopic, Ali: An American Hero (2000) stars David Ramsey as the boxing legend. Though Leon Ichaso’s made-for-TV drama is a little more frank about his stormy private life and political battles, it is low on depth or insight, cramming too many events into its short running time. Ramsey’s interpretation captures some of Ali’s regal arrogance, but not enough of his mirth, mischief and mania.

The most robust attempt yet to dramatize this story was Ali (2001), a high-profile star vehicle that fell to Michael Mann after years in development with Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and others. Physically, the lean and lanky Will Smith was not an obvious choice of lead, though he bulks up impressively and faithfully reproduces Ali’s vocal mannerisms. Smith reportedly declined the role at first, but Ali changed his mind by insisting the artist formerly known as The Fresh Prince was the only actor pretty enough to do him justice. Even if this story is hype and folklore, we really want it to be true.

Mann compresses Ali’s life down to his most eventful decade, recreating the period in forensic detail, showing his darker side alongside his weapons-grade charm. Even so, this epic treatment feels oddly flat, its superbly orchestrated fight scenes let down by lifeless dramatic vignettes. Stretched over three hours, Ali mistakes bigness for greatness, bombast for brio.

Numerous documentaries also have been made about Ali. One of the earliest is AKA Cassius Clay (1970), directed by boxing promoter Jim Jacobs in the depths of Ali’s long-enforced career hiatus, when his hopes of regaining past glory seemed remote. It features Ali and legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato reviewing clips of the boxer’s past fights, debating his greatness, and squaring up for a mock punch-up. It is an intriguing curio but, inevitably, it predates the more interesting second act.

Among the more notable recent additions to this nonfiction canon is Pete McCormick’s Facing Ali (2009), in which former rivals and sparring partners pay tribute to the champ. Ali himself only appears in archive footage, but first-hand interviewees include George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and Henry Cooper, who makes the claim that Ali’s decline into Parkinson’s was likely caused by too many blows to the head. Also worth seeing is Bill Siegel’s Tribeca entry The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), a dry but engaging history lesson focused on the embattled boxer’s political and religious struggles during his long exile from the ring. Neither is a fully rounded portrait, but both are thorough and careful to avoid hagiography.

Of course, few would dispute that the best documentary vehicle for Ali’s explosive screen showmanship is Leon Gast’s Oscar-winner When We Were Kings (1996) — a time capsule of the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” comeback fight in Zaire in 1974, when a 32-year-old Ali sensationally reclaimed his title from George Foreman seven years after it was stripped from him. Hanging around in Kinshasa for weeks while the fight is delayed, Gast gains enviable access to Ali for interviews and training footage. As the once and future king of the ring runs along dusty African backroads, adoring locals spur him on with the rousing chant “Ali bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”), a slogan which passed into pop-culture legend.

Rescued from the vaults after two decades in legal limbo, with help from co-producer Taylor Hackford, When We Were Kings is an audiovisual treasure chest of music and politics, big egos and Afro-centric pride. Between cameos by Don King, James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Spike Lee, B.B. King, Norman Mailer and more, Gast’s film captures Ali in multiple moods, from inspirational icon to boorish bully. The end result is bigger than a mere sports movie — more like a richly rewarding record of a momentous comeback and a highly charged period in African-American history. At the 1997 Academy Awards, longtime friends Ali and Foreman pointedly came onstage together.

Just like When We Were Kings is a boxing movie for non-boxing fans, Ali himself was a sporting superstar for people with zero interest in sports. He was the people’s champion, leaving a deep imprint on 20th century sport, culture, politics and race relations. But his cinematic legacy is scrappy, largely because his heavyweight personality was too big for even the biggest screen. The Elvis of boxing has left the building.