This documentary captures the key era in the ten year stretch between 1964 and 1974 in the life of the champion boxer Muhammad Ali, starting when he was gearing up to fight Sonny Liston, then the reigning heavyweight champion. He had built up a reputation of being a loudmouth who many in America, both black and white, thought was too big for his boots and were relishing the prospect of watching him beaten by Liston. Documentarian William Klein decided to join the press and follow Ali around, since the boxer was always a provider of a good story thanks to his skill with off the cuff remarks, but he also took a look around contemporary America to see what the public were saying about the man, seeing as how everyone in the country, and increasingly the world, had an opinion about him. In fact, Ali was quickly turning into the most talked about individual on the planet...
Klein's stance on Ali fed into his scepticism about the United States which had seen him leave for the more amenable to him climate of France, but he like everyone else at the time this was made was fascinated by this icon who was not going to toe any line and buckle under to what the white authorities wanted him to do. In this film, actually two separate documentaries edited together in somewhat slapdash maner with the sixties footage first and the so-called Rumble in the Jungle second, the subject was unquestionably race and what Ali meant to the African Americans, and indeed the Africans across the Atlantic. Characterised as a troublemaker for refusing to compromise, including resisting the Vietnam War draft, Klein depicted Ali as many things, but mostly either an entertainer or a deep thinker, as he was always happy to broadcast his views and jokes to as wide an audience as possible, well aware the world was hanging on his every word.
Unfortunately for the director, what he did not have was the rights to actual boxing footage, or at least not very much of it, so the major battle between Ali and Liston where Ali secured the championship for the first of three times had to be represented by a child's drawing, an eccentric choice and a slap in the face to those who held the footage, but frustrating when the first act builds to a notable anticlimax. As you might expect from that, there is no footage of the Zaire fight either, the most famous boxing match of all time where Ali surprised the world, if not himself, by winning back the title in his thirties against the younger George Foreman; in a nice touch, Klein included a bit with Foreman doing his own publicity trail to noticeably less interest, and he comes across not as the hardheaded villain Ali had to paint him as but actually a nice guy. All the way through, however, it was his opponent anyone wanted to hear from, and in Africa the chant of "Ali, boma ye!" resounded in every corner of the globe.
But Klein was there to record less well recalled aspects of Ali's career, such as the repercussions of his conversion to Islam and his name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. We hear from Malcolm X who is very impressed with what the sportsman was doing for raising black consciousness and awareness of the Civil Rights struggle, yet after he is assassinated many of his allies claimed they were going to do the same to Ali. In the press conference immediately after, he is sober in demeanour and measured in his responses, saying he fears nothing but God and accusing the police of not doing their job properly if a death threat is not countered by the forces of law and order. For every serious scene such as that, there are laughs as well, Ali's banter was second to none and conveyed his immense charisma without apparent effort, being his own best publicist, so we see him in a photo opportunity with The Beatles near the beginning, or goofing around miming a loss to Foreman that never happened. Yet equal to that are his countless fans, who just love the man; it's captivating to see him with Stepin Fetchit, an icon of a very different black America who Ali treats with respect in conversation, but mostly those crowds who were energised by Ali will be what you remember from this, perhaps because the boxing is kept to a minimum.