Thursday, June 9, 2016

The late Muhammad Ali lives on in compelling docs ranging from the crowd-pleasing When We Were Kings to the heartbreaking Muhammad and Larry

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I was too young to catch the late Muhammad Ali in his prime as a boxer and civil rights activist. So it wasn't until the 1996 release of When We Were Kings, Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford's Oscar-winning documentary about the lead-up to Ali's 1974 victory over George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, when I started to understand why from the '60s to the early '80s, the world was captivated by this former athlete whom teenage In Living Color viewers like myself knew only as a lethargic roach spray pitchman.

The nicely edited doc caused me to be won over by both Ali's sense of humor--which remained a part of his personality even during his weakened state due to Parkinson's disease, like when he pretended to doze off in the middle of David Frost's 2002 interview with him--and his activism, particularly the brave stand he took against the Vietnam War, which cost him his heavyweight title and his boxing license. He once amazingly said, "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over."

Also noteworthy for featuring "Rumble in the Jungle," a catchy original theme song that united the Fugees, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest, one of whose members was another beloved African American figure who died this year, Phife Dawg (2016 can go fuck itself), the stirring When We Were Kings remains one of my favorite movies from the '90s. But When We Were Kings suffers from something San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist Johnny Ray Huston criticized Gast and Hackford for at the time of the doc's release--Huston was the only writer I saw point this out back then--and that flaw is devoting too much of its running time to George Plimpton and Norman Mailer doing what's known today as whitesplaining both Ali and a moment of worldwide black pride like the Rumble in the Jungle. Huston's attitude was like "Who gives a fuck what these old white men think, especially when a black perspective would be the perfect one to recall these moments?" He had a point there.

Gast's fascinating archival footage of the G.O.A.T. in his prime more beautifully conveys the speed, grace and brash personality of Ali than any of the talking-head segments Hackford shot in the '90s with Mailer, whose cringeworthy black guy voice while impersonating the boxing legend keeps reminding me of Wyatt Cenac's anecdote about how an improv session between him, another black comic and the late Robin Williams went from awesome to mildly uncomfortable when Williams started trotting out his clichéd black guy voice in front of them. Moments of interminable whitesplaining aside, When We Were Kings is a rare doc that deserves to be seen at least once in a theater with an audience, just to hear how other viewers react to Ali's one-liners, the trash-talking mind games he subjected his rivals to outside the ring and his rapport with his youngest fans.

While other heavyweight boxers at the time tended to be either glum or inarticulate, Ali knew how to charm a crowd. He was the ultimate boxer-as-rock-star. The 1997 theater audience I saw When We Were Kings with wound up cheering for Ali or enjoying his spontaneous antics as if it were 1974 again. That's how charismatic he was. The crowd gets turnt up even when it's just archival footage of him interacting with the press.

"I couldn't stand the Michael Mann film Ali starring Will Smith... The film's great flaw is the fact that no one can really play Muhammad Ali except for Muhammad Ali," wrote Nation sports columnist Dave Zirin in 2013. "That is why Muhammad Ali has always been served better by documentaries than dramatic films."

(.GIF source: Muhammad Ali - The Greatest)
And that is why after Ali's death from respiratory problems last Friday, I marathoned for the rest of the weekend a bunch of docs about Ali instead of watching either Mann's beautifully shot but hugely flawed (and stolen by Jamie Foxx as Drew "Bundini" Brown) biopic on HBO Go or 1977's The Greatest, a much less beautifully shot and much more stilted biopic where Ali stars as himself, but, as Zirin noted, "it was a disaster precisely because the wicked improvisation that marked both his style of speech and boxing were [sic] thuddingly absent." Ali's passing makes you eager to revisit the real, unscripted Ali on film, not the Hollywood versions of Ali like Smith's faithful and respectful but also overly mopey (which isn't really Smith's fault--the mopiness is due to Mann's propensity for brooding and largely humorless male lead characters, outside of Dennis Farina on Crime Story and Al Pacino in Heat) recreation of Ali.

My marathoning of all these Ali docs I highly recommend has made me realize there will probably never be another sports figure as simultaneously entertaining and humane as the Greatest was (although he wasn't so humane towards the late Joe Frazier, calling him an Uncle Tom despite the fact that Frazier actually vouched for the reinstatement of Ali's boxing license, but we'll just consider that a rare slip-up by Ali). In the world of hoops, current Oakland hero Steph Curry could be another Ali, but it's too early to tell. And for a while, to us Filipino Americans, it looked like Manny Pacquiao was going to be our humble Pinoy superhero who would make us even more proud to be Filipino because of his heroism in the ring, but then Pacquiao had to open his mouth about same-sex marriage, and he went from being a kindly Ali type to the embarrassing drunk uncle at the merienda table who should really shut the fuck up about politics.

The boxing world, which is currently being eclipsed in popularity by MMA fighting (another sport that, like boxing, has just lost one of its black fighters: Kimbo Slice, the guy whom Tracy Morgan memorably said should be President Obama's Secretary of Defense on Late Night with Conan O'Brien), needs more humane Ali types and less ignorant types like Pacquiao. That's why Ali's passing is a huge loss for boxing. It's also a huge loss for Islam. It loses one of its most eloquent voices in terms of speaking out against the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists, which has intensified again ever since Donald Drumpf started persecuting them as part of his Penguin-running-for-mayor-ish presidential campaign.

Ali's earlier allegiance to the Nation of Islam (an offshoot of traditional Islam) and the way that Ali's anti-war activism stemmed from his faith are deftly explored in director Bill Siegel's 2013 doc The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which is now streaming on Hulu. Zirin is right about the Siegel doc's ability to communicate with nuance Ali's journey of rebellion against racism and war. This is the film to see if you've always been curious about Ali's activist side, the allure Ali saw in the Nation of Islam (it provided the former Cassius Clay with a way to become empowered as a black man, right when he was starting to question both Eurocentricism and mainstream America's bizarre preferences for white over black in everything from Christianity to nursery rhymes) and the career sacrifices Ali made due to opting to be a conscientious objector.

Despite his ability to pulverize contenders in the ring, Ali was a pacifist who resisted the draft because the Vietnam War went against everything Islam had taught him about relating to others who weren't his boxing rivals. Even as early as the late '60s, Ali was fighting against Islamophobic misconceptions of Muslims as hateful, as seen in the Siegel doc's eye-opening archival clip of Ali responding to a white college student who believed black Muslims killed Malcolm X after he left the Nation of Islam. He said to the student, "Anybody that'd assassinate anybody or anybody that carry [sic] weapons are not Muslims."

Ali had to say basically the same thing during a telethon for 9/11 victims, in order to help put a stop to post-9/11 Islamophobia and persuade an angered and revenge-seeking America that the extremists who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam do not represent the majority of his religion's followers. It's depressing how three decades after Ali defended his religion on campus, nothing changed in regards to Islamophobia, and two years after The Trials of Muhammad Ali's premiere, Ali stood up against Drumpf's irrational proposal to ban Muslim immigration to America in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks (while also calling for his fellow Muslims to stand up against extremist Muslims) during one of his last bits of activism.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is much more serious in tone than When We Were Kings. It doesn't open with Ali being his usual gregarious self and instead begins with interview footage of Ali being silently upset while he listens to talk-show host David Susskind insulting him and dismissing his stand against the war as disgraceful and un-American. But the Siegel doc pulls off "serious Ali" better than the 2001 Mann biopic does and contains one amusing moment: a clip of Ali's forgotten venture into musical theater during the years when showbiz and the college lecture circuit were his primary sources of income instead of the sport that temporarily exiled him.

The clip of Ali performing a show tune isn't "Golden Throats" terrible because there was always a certain musicality to Ali's style of speech, so it's not surprising that he would be able to carry a tune. But it's "Golden Throats" surreal.

Speaking of the forgotten, it's easy to forget that Ali, the father of nine children, was once somebody's child, and the biggest things I wasn't aware of until watching The Trials of Muhammad Ali were his Christian parents' dissatisfaction with both his conversion to Islam and his name changes (he was temporarily known as "Cassius X" before the Nation of Islam renamed him Ali) and his mother's worry for Ali's safety when a fire broke out in Ali's apartment after Malcolm X's assassination. Another thing I wasn't aware of was that part of his activism was shaped by a woman: Khalilah Camacho Ali, his first wife, who recalls in the doc what she said to Ali when he considered signing up to serve just like Joe Louis before him because Louis saw barely any combat and got to continue to box while serving. She told her husband, "You have to understand that once you sign your name to that army, then you are their slave forever. So just say, 'Hell no, you ain't gonna go.' Rhyme it. Do what you do best. Those people over there in Vietnam did not lynch you, did not break up your family. Those Vietnamese people are your brothers."

Ali's decision to refuse to serve inspired other athletes to take similarly risky stands, despite the animosity they knew they would face. John Carlos, one of two San Jose State University-educated Olympians who became legendary on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics for raising their fists as a Black Power statement against racism and injustice, appears as an interviewee during The Trials of Muhammad Ali and expresses his deep admiration for Ali. In fact, one of the demands that were part of Carlos and Tommie Smith's message to the world from Mexico City was for Ali to be given back his heavyweight title.

(.GIF source: David Brothers)

While The Trials of Muhammad Ali centers on Ali's greatness as the athlete-as-activist, two solid HBO docs about Ali's intense rivalry with Joe Frazier raise the point that Ali had his flaws. Both narrated by Liev Schreiber, 2000's Ali-Frazier I: One Nation... Divisible and 2009's Thrilla in Manila present an Ali whose taunting of Frazier took a cruel turn, especially when it resulted in a young Marvis Frazier, Smokin' Joe's boxer son, being bullied at school. While Ali was the darling of both left-leaning people of color and the counterculture, white conservatives who opposed Ali sided with the not-so-militant Frazier and viewed him as their champ, so Ali denounced Frazier as a Tom and a tool of the white man. What makes Ali's hatred of Frazier especially puzzling is that his former friend helped Ali regain his license and even lent him money.

HBO Go doesn't carry either the Peabody-winning Ali-Frazier I or the British-made Thrilla in Manila (which is good because HBO Go buffers way too much whenever I stream Game of Thrones or Veep over there), but boxing fans on YouTube have posted the HBO docs in their entirety. If it becomes difficult to distinguish between Ali-Frazier I and Thrilla in Manila, just remember that Ali-Frazier I, which weirdly doesn't contain a directorial credit, is the one that suffers from a really cheesy original score by Copper composer Brian Keane, while Thrilla in Manila, which contains much less chintzy-sounding music, goes in harder on Ali and often comes off as pro-Frazier.

If The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story caused many viewers to think, "Man, I feel really awful about all the misogynist shit Marcia Clark experienced as a female prosecutor," then Thrilla in Manila will similarly make you sympathize with Frazier and understand his anger about Ali painting him as a Tom. Thrilla in Manila director John Dower wanted to throw a few left hooks at the most beloved boxer of all time via his doc, so in addition to covering the negative effects of Ali's taunts, the film briefly brings up Ali's philandering. But Thrilla in Manila bears one major flaw. It doesn't interview enough people from Ali's camp who would have spoken up for Ali, whose Parkinson's made it difficult for him to do interviews (other than the 2002 conversation with David Frost), and it chooses a rather terrible representative of his camp: Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's former physician and cornerman, who was played by Paul Rodriguez in the Mann biopic and had split from Ali's camp when Ali refused to listen to Pacheco's suggestion that he retire in 1977.

During Thrilla in Manila, Pacheco comes off as a huge troll in a lot of the same ways that Piers Morgan is a troll whenever he stupidly bashes Ali or any other figure who's revered by African Americans. Pacheco is an ignorant asshole who constantly argues with the interviewer and refers to Ali's comparisons of Frazier to a gorilla as "brilliant," which results in the best present-day moment of the doc. That would be when black reporter Sunni Khalid finds out from the interviewer about Pacheco's amusement over Ali's gorilla jokes, and Khalid, who's so angry he doesn't give a shit about getting Pacheco's first name wrong, puts Pacheco--this doc's equivalent of the Jim Breuer fanboy character who, during Chris Rock's Roll with the New album, makes the big mistake of uttering the N-word while approaching Rock about how much he loves his "Niggers vs. Black People" routine--in his place. Khalid says, "Those [gorilla lines] are fighting words. This is the worst invective, and for Freddie [sic] Pacheco to say that about Joe Frazier shows how dumb Freddie [sic] Pacheco is about matters of race within the black race."

Despite how much sympathy Thrilla in Manila has for Frazier's plight (his life after boxing was an impoverished one, due mostly to gambling addiction, and his home was a room above the struggling Philly gym he ran and had to close in 2008), Frazier doesn't come off well either in Thrilla in Manila, particularly when the still-bitter-at-the-time-of-filming Philadelphian mentions that he wished for Ali to catch on fire and burn while carrying the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics. While Ali apologized to Marvis for his cruel treatment of his father, it wasn't satisfactory enough for Frazier, who wanted Ali to apologize directly to him, and Thrilla in Manila ends on a bleak note of Frazier waiting for Ali's apology.

That apology arrives (as photographic evidence) in British filmmaker Clare Lewins' 2014 doc I Am Ali, which is now streaming on Netflix. I Am Ali has a couple of interesting gimmicks: it opts for a non-linear approach, soundtracked partly by Thomas Newman score cues from Road to Perdition, Phenomenon, Meet Joe Black and The Help (Lewins, a fan of Newman's film scores, asked Newman to score her doc, and although he was unable to score it, he nicely presented her with a discount on any past score cues of his that she wanted to use), and the project grew out of audiotapes Ali made of his conversations with his children, recordings that are prominently featured in the film.

The Lewins doc was made with the cooperation and input of Ali's daughters (boxer daughter Laila Ali, whose career choice was met with some disapproval from her father, was conspicuously not involved), and it strikes a balance between the loving portrayals of Ali that color When We Were Kings and The Trials of Muhammad Ali and the more critical views of Ali that are glimpsed in Ali-Frazier I and Thrilla in Manila. So I Am Ali devotes some time as well to the difficulties the Frazier family experienced due to Ali's taunts, but it also reveals that Ali finally apologized to Frazier face-to-face. A photo of Ali and Frazier together in a truce before Frazier's death provides the Ali/Frazier narrative with the relieving coda Thrilla in Manila doesn't have.

Like director Pete McCormack's 2009 doc Facing Ali, a film told from the points of view of Ali's boxing opponents, I Am Ali compensates for the lack of modern-day footage of Ali, due to his difficulties with speaking, by bringing lots of style and panache to the filmmaking. My favorite segment in I Am Ali deals with an arbiter of said style, Esquire magazine, and brings out Esquire photographer Carl Fischer to recall his 1968 photo shoot with Ali, who was photographed with fake arrows piercing his body.

The shoot for the provocative cover went smoothly, although, according to Fischer, "the arrows turned out to be a major headache" and "Ali had to stand very still for a long time." In I Am Ali, Fischer fondly remembers Ali's sense of humor during the shoot and remains fascinated by a moment when Ali pointed to each fake arrow wound and attributed that wound to an authority figure who stripped him of his title.

Also streamable on Netflix is the 2009 ESPN 30 for 30 doc Muhammad and Larry, a largely downbeat snapshot of Ali's decline as a boxer due to early Parkinson's. Shot by the late Albert Maysles (of Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens fame), Muhammad and Larry's archival footage of a slower and less spry Ali while he trains to fight Larry Holmes and then finally goes toe-to-toe with him in 1980 can sometimes be more difficult to watch than even the later footage of the retired Ali after the Parkinson's had advanced. But flashes of Ali's old charm remain in the footage of Ali outside the ring, like when the Maysles doc shows him entertaining his fans with magic tricks. Neither his braggadocio about his manliness nor his mature handling of serious matters like the conflict in Vietnam could bury his boyish enthusiasm for magic and illusions.

The most surprising part of Muhammad and Larry is the second man in the film's title. I was too young to pay attention to boxing when Holmes was the champ, so I've known Holmes only from Eddie Murphy's still-funny impression of Holmes as both an uneducated dullard in TV ads ("I get the sem-say-shim that I am running through the woods--butt-nekkid--and little children is sprinklin' cool water on my butt") and an athlete who lacks sportsmanship ("Well, I'd just like to thay fuck you, and, um, and fuck him, and fuck the judges, and since we on HBO, y'all can suck my motherfuckin' dick!"). A more sensitive and compassionate Holmes emerges from the doc (he's also far from a philanderer: unlike Ali, who had four wives and fathered two children out of wedlock, present-day Holmes is still married to the same wife who appears with their baby in the archival footage). Holmes gets no pleasure from defeating Ali and even tears up over the dwindling agility of his once-swift opponent.

Many more docs have been made about Ali, but a marathon of When We Were Kings, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Ali-Frazier I, Thrilla in Manila, I Am Ali and Muhammad and Larry is the perfect way to experience a well-rounded portrait of this complicated and charismatic sports figure. These six films are a powerful example of the importance of docs as both an art form and a method of journalism that keeps alive for future generations a beloved historical figure who no longer exists. They manage to capture Ali's spontaneous essence, warts and all, in ways that dramatic films can't, no matter how hard they try.

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