There are few modern lives that have been covered with the width and breadth of Muhammad Ali’s. The number of books, movies, and documentaries detailing the events of his life are nearly impossible to number at this point. Many of them have been very good. It’s just that there’s so much of it.
When HBO announced the two-part documentary series, What’s My Name?, no one would have been blamed for questioning its necessity or lack there of.
As well, I was somewhat concerned by the director of the project, Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua has enjoyed a successful career on film with movies like Training Day and The Equalizer series. He also made a half-decent boxing movie, Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
While Fuqua has often been associated with successful films, he’s rarely been feted for being a particularly subtle or elegant filmmaker. When I see his name after the “Directed by” credit onscreen, I typically know what I’m in for. In his dramatic work, it’s never been enough for Fuqua to drive a point home without using the heaviest sledge in his arsenal.
Marry that concern to the fact that at this point, what is it that we don’t know about the extraordinary American life of Muhammad Ali, and therefore, why does this film need to exist?
It turns out that was the wrong question to ask. Because not only was Fuqua up to the job, but as Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”
And that’s where What’s My Name? truly excels. While many of the beats in his life that are represented here have been told elsewhere, it’s the presentation that sets this production apart. Quite smartly, the film does not load us up with the details and minutiae that a standard documentary might have. It anticipates that we know more or less what happened. What it wants to do more than educate us is make us feel it.
Like any documentary, What’s My Name is an assemblage of candid stills, video clips, and voice overs. What’s different is the delivery.
The use of music marks the moment and the times. Each song (Sam Cooke, Creedence, James Brown) are perfectly placed not only for the momentum they give the story, but to place you in the appropriate era of his life. Part one ends with Ali banished from boxing due to his refusal to enter the draft. As the credits roll, you hear Ali himself singing a charming, plaintive – if a bit off-key – version of “Stand By Me.” In doing so, the film captures the unsteadiness of his life at a time when his career has been taken away from him. His version of the song sounds like a plea to do the very thing the title requests, because surely, the ground beneath his feet was shaky.
Part two sets you up for the next stretch of years by blasting out James Brown’s “The Payback,”…
…for the comeback to glory that would soon arrive. It’s a masterful back to back use of music that provides both chronological and emotional orientation.
The film also uses Ali’s own words, cribbed from a treasure trove of interviews – to supply the voice over. There is no other narrator. As well, there are no talking heads. Only Ali’s voice and the images onscreen. This choice allows the film to have an almost musical flow to it. There’s no stopping and turning to some crusty journalist on a stool telling you what everything means. This gives What’s My Name? an immediacy it might not otherwise have. It feels less like being told what happened and more like being dropped in the middle of the happening.
The events of Ali’s life are juxtaposed against world events – war, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the resignation of Nixon. In doing so, the film puts its subject on par with those events and figures. These aren’t just things that happened while he was alive. They are essential to understanding him beyond his life as an athlete. The times he lived in shaped him. What’s fascinating to remember is he also shaped his times. That’s where you find the historical equivalence of his life against that of activists and politicians. He was not separate from them. He was among them.
When you see onscreen Ali connecting with everyone from Malcolm X…
..to Ronald Reagan, you truly get the sense that these are historical figures of matching gravitas. It’s a point the film makes not by having someone tell you so, but by simply showing you that it is so.
At the same time, the film does go about sharing the events of his boxing career in chronological order. You do get much of what you would expect. But by using stills and footage that I (a Muhammad Aliologist – if that’s not a thing it should be) wasn’t even familiar with, the film feels fresher than you might expect.
The early Olympic medal triumph, the victories over Sonny Liston, and the fight against Ernie Terrell that gives this documentary its name are showcased in vibrant form – despite the familiarity you may already have with those parts of his career. In particular, the lead up to the Terrell fight where Ali’s opponent refuses to call him by his Muslim name does a better job of showing you the palpable anger and seething discontent that Ali held for Terrell than any other piece of film or writing I have seen.
The continuous footage of Ali screaming “What’s My Name?” over and over as he batters Terrell with a series of jabs and combinations made the hair on my neck stand up. For Ali, the Terrell fight was not another match. It was not business and it was not show. It was personal. This was a man in the process of claiming his spirituality, his rights as a man, and his very life. To Ali, Terrell represented all that would stand in the way of him reaching his destination.
This man was a fighter in and out of the ring. And my, how glorious it is to watch him work in those younger years. Whether challenging Floyd Patterson with his remarkable ring skills, or using his verbal gifts and extreme self-confidence to challenge a government that did not give him equal status in his own country (yet still demanded he fight against the Viet Cong), Ali is electric.
It’s amazing to think what a battle he had with the United States government. Despite the legal right to declare himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and was not allowed to practice his profession for over three years when he was in his physical prime. It took a unanimous Supreme Court decision to get Ali full reinstatement into boxing and to keep him out of jail.
The Ali that emerges in part two is a different man. His outlook on the world has changed, but more relevant to his boxing career, so had his body. He was heavier. And while his hands were still fast and his feet still capable, they were not the same durable assets he once had.
For the new Ali to win, he would have to be smarter and tougher. He would need to outhink his opponents, and he would need to be willing -and able – to take more punishment. As Ali takes a few warm up bouts before his first of three perilous fights with Joe Frazier, you can see in front of you that his physical gifts have diminished. He’s still unusually quick for a heavyweight, but less so than before. Perhaps even more significantly, he clearly tired more easily.
Joe Frazier was able to take advantage of theses chinks in the armor and won a well-deserved unanimous decision – handing Ali his first loss – when they met in Madison Square Garden.
After that fight, both men suffered defeats. In Ali’s case it was a grueling split decision against Ken Norton (it should be noted that Ali’s trilogy of bouts with Norton deserve a film all their own) that temporarily derailed a second fight with Frazier. For Frazier, he suffered a devastating and humiliating knock out at the hands of George Foreman.
When the two men did finally get back in the ring for fight two, you could see the miles on their collective backs. Their prime was clearly in their rear-view. Blood and guts would have to make up the difference. Typically, documentaries about Ali and Frazier focus on the bookends of their trilogy and largely leave out the fight in-between. What’s My Name? restores some balance to that equation. While the middle fight may have lacked the comeback story and upset victory by Frazier, or the sheer life and death struggle of their final fight, I was grateful to see the footage of that second bout be given its due. It was a great fight in its own right – resulting in a close unanimous decision for Ali. In seeing this fight – the connecting tissue between the more famous two – you get a better sense of the pace of physical decline in both men. It’s inclusion helps you better understand why their final fight was so perilous to both of them – they had taken nearly everything from each other.
What’s My Name? doesn’t spend quite as much time on what many consider Ali’s greatest victory in the ring – the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman. I’m guessing Fuqua and his team saw no value in competing with the great Oscar-winning When We Were Kings documentary from 1996, which covers that fight from stem to stern. Even so, there’s some great footage I had not seen included here from that storied event.
You also learn that Ali’s rope-a-dope defense he used to tire out Foreman was one he would employ in future fights as well. In the annals of Ali history, that is seldom mentioned.
The final portion of What’s My Name is inevitably the saddest. Ali carries on too long in the fight game after reclaiming his title from Leon Spinks after Spinks upset him in one of the greatest returns on investment of any betting line ever. Upon becoming the first three-time heavyweight champion in the world, Ali had nothing left to prove. His body was weary, his speech had slowed, Father Time had caught him. But athletes – especially fighters – are often the last to know or believe that their day has passed.
So, despite having plenty of money and charitable interests, Ali fought on. First against former sparring partner, Larry Holmes. There was a time when Ali probably would have handled Holmes, but at 38, he should have known better. Ali suffers an embarrassing non-competitive loss. One so lopsided that Holmes himself is seen crying in the locker room over the beating he gave his idol.
Ali’s last fight was against a so-so contender named Trevor Berbick. His defeat here is shown only in still photos. As if Fuqua has no desire to lay Ali any lower after showing the Holmes fiasco. It was a good choice.
The remaining minutes of the film form a lovely coda after those two punishing defeats. Despite the onset of Parkinson’s, Ali stays active. I’ve always thought this was his bravest and greatest period as a man. In his rapidly declining state, it would have been easy for him to become a recluse and simply count his money. But he didn’t do that. He raised money to fight against the disease he was in conflict with. Gave from his own pocket to help people in the United States and abroad. He even talked Saddam Hussein into releasing 15 United States prisoners.
If the post-fight portion of his life were to be referred to as a swan song, it was surely a long and beautiful one.
As the final moments of the film played out onscreen in a wondrous collage of achievement, you hear Ali’s voice for the final time – giving a speech about what he will do with his life after boxing.
He says that he will prepare himself for god. That this life is a test. That god wants to know how we treat each other here on Earth. Then he recites a righteous poem on the black experience called “We Came In Chains” that connects our current day to his. Finally, a title card appears onscreen that quotes him directly, saying, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.”
Whether you believe in an after-world or not, that sentiment has merit well beyond any religious tenet.
What’s my name? the title of this film asks. In his life, the man had two. Two names that were so cool sounding I guess his life had to be big enough to handle both. And was it ever. Of course, the answer to that question is simple. His name is the one he chose: Muhammad Ali.
I think there’s a second question the film asks as well. Who was this man?
Who was this man of whom reams of paper have been written, millions of words said, and reel upon reel of film created, and yet the wellspring of discussion available to us over his life seems to know no drought?
Who was this man?
The answer to that question is simple enough too.
He was “The Greatest.”