'What's My Name | Muhammad Ali': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

An idealized but vivid and fascinating portrait of a career.

Antoine Fuqua's archival film documents Muhammad Ali’s public life as boxing champ and cultural hero.

Watching Antoine Fuqua's archival documentary about the career of  Muhammad Ali is like entering a time capsule. What’s My Name is a chronological account that uses Ali’s own voice and image from talk shows, press conferences and interviews, in clips that range from famous moments, used sparingly, to the unfamiliar. How many of us have seen Ali riding a horse at his training camp?

This two-part HBO film sharply defines why Ali was such an important figure in American life, a great heavyweight boxing champion whose presence came to include celebrity culture, race and politics. You couldn’t call the film a biography, though. It only covers his public life, without even a benign mention of his four wives, nine children or various romantic escapades. Produced with the cooperation of the Ali estate, the film makes no attempt to go beyond hagiography. What it lacks in depth and rigor, though, it makes up for with the wealth of fascinating photographs and videos, compiled without narration and with a graceful flow. Ali was well-documented in his lifetime, and the film carries us into his career as he so knowingly created it, with purpose inside the ring and with gleeful and wildly successful image-making and cultivation of fame outside it.

Many scenes from his early career are in black-and-white. As Cassius Clay, he suddenly became famous when he won an Olympic gold medal in 1960. Then he returned home and, as he tells a television interviewer, was refused service at a segregated restaurant. The film smoothly sets up those two strands of his career — sports and social awareness — which are never really separate after.

Of Fuqua’s many tension and action-filled movies, from Training Day to the Equalizer films, the most relevant is Southpaw, with Jake Gyllenhaal as a boxer who won’t quit. What’s My Name is much less bloody, but Fuqua’s affection for boxing is obvious, and he includes extended sequences from Ali’s fights. At times the punches and rope-a-dope beatings speak for themselves, but Fuqua always cleverly layers those scenes with blow-by-blow commentary from the match, or music or even Ali himself reciting poetry as he sometimes did. That audio layering makes the scenes accessible for non-boxing fans. And the period music sets the tone of Ali’s time, with a soundtrack that includes "I'm a Man" and "Stand by Me."

The film fills in some valuable social context, particularly about the backdrop to Ali’s well-known defiance of the military draft for religious reasons, in 1967, at the height of his career. He had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad was his mentor and Malcolm X cheered him on at ringside. As a glimpse of government documents shows, the FBI kept tabs on the Nation of Islam as a dangerous group. Considering how this resonates with racism and anti-Muslim hostility today, the film could have gone further into that area, but Fuqua’s sleek approach is to keep moving forward.

Charged with draft evasion, Ali was stripped of his title, and lost three years of his career. By the time the Supreme Court granted him conscientious objector status, he had to make a comeback, which became the story. At that point the film begins to reveal how deliberately the narrative of Muhammad Ali took shape, with the media a willing cohort. Howard Cosell, of ABC Sports, blares that Ali is "a faded hero of yesteryear," to which Ali responds, "Howard, every time you open your mouth you should be arrested for air pollution." They are as smooth as any comedy duo hitting their lines.

Clips like those, including Ali’s appearances with talk show hosts ranging from Steve Allen to Arsenio Hall, capture why his bravado was so entertaining. Even his fiercest political statements took on a playful tone, no matter how angry the sentiment underneath. "White men" from the USSR and the U.S. were equally "bad," he said, so let’s keep them from fighting each other, because if they go to war black men will suffer the consequences.

Norman Mailer, who covered the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali’s world championship fight against Joe Frazier in Zaire in 1974, had once said Ali was the second most important American after Richard Nixon. Asked by a reporter if he’d want to be president, Ali answered, "America is in too much trouble! I don’t want that job now."

It is harrowing to watch the sad end of his career, as he retired, came back and retired again. Fuqua lets us see the brutal pummeling he took from Leon Spinks during that period, the rope-a-dope no longer something he could withstand. "I think time got me," Ali said after.

When Ali begins to show signs of Parkinson’s, the film rushes along. There is much less footage from the period to draw on, although we see famous scenes of him at the 1996 Olympics, one hand holding the torch and the other shaking, 20 years before he died. There is a bit of a 60 Minutes interview in which Ali’s wife (not even identified as his wife here and the only hint of family in the film) helps him prank Ed Bradley into thinking Ali has a form of narcolepsy.  

With montages of Ali meeting the Pope and Nelson Mandela, and newspaper headlines about donations to help fight poverty in Africa, What's My Name is undeniably an exercise in image-burnishing (not that Ali’s already heroic image needs it). But this smartly crafted film holds you all the way.

Production companies: Sutter Road Picture Company, Fuqua Films, SpringHill Entertainment
Distributor: HBO
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Steven Leckart
Producer: Sean Stuart
Director of photography: Maz Makhani
Editor: Jake Pushinsky
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

165 minutes