I cant believe its been 10 years since this came out. Just like ‘Ghost Dog’, ‘Solaris’ (2002) and countless other films from my teenage years/early 20’s, I use to dislike ‘Ali’ (well maybe not dislike, but i wasn’t crazy about it), but now I kinda enjoy it. I remember back in the myspace blog days, Pinksmoke writer John Cribbs included ‘Ali’ on his “25 best films of the decade so far” list in 2006. Naturally I went; “Huh?!” upon seeing that, but over the years curiosity slowly got the best of me. I thought; “is there something I didn’t see?” So a few months ago I bought the DVD and gave ‘Ali’ a 2nd chance. There’s still a few flaws that kinda get to me, but at the end of the day my take on it has pretty much done a 180. Whats interesting is that in the last few months that I’ve been revisiting ‘Ali’, I’ve had 3 (separate) in depth conversations about it with 3 different groups of people (of various races) in 3 different countries (U.S., France & Spain) with 3 different outcomes. Some found it brilliant. Some hated it. And some liked the movie but didn’t care for Will Smith’s performance. I admit that when I saw Michael Mann’s Ali upon its initial release I didn’t have the appreciation for Mann’s visual style that I have now. Maybe its a maturity thing, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how much of a genius he is. I always liked ‘Thief’ and ‘Heat’ but never attributed my love of those movie to Michael Mann. Even his stuff that I’m not crazy about like ‘Collateral’ or ‘Public Enemies’ still has this “look” to them that always catches my eye. What is it about Mann’s style that can make a shot of blurry street lights or a close-up of the side of someones face look so great? Its like listening to atmospheric music or instrumental music. When you really get down to it, there’s no REAL legitimate explanation why that kinda music touches someone on the inside. Its an unspoken, indescribable thing.
Furthermore, ‘Ali’ showed Michael Mann’s continued fascination with the accentuation of colors (specifically the color blue), like many of his films before and after. It is true that he may have seemed like an odd choice to direct this biopic at first. You’d think that a non-crime drama Michael Mann film would stand out the most from his filmography, but the way he shot ‘Ali’ made it fit in with the rest of his work.
The timeline of ‘Ali’ spans from his first bout with Sonny Liston (another boxer who’s story would make an amazing biopic if done right) up through “The Rumble In The Jungle” with George Foreman. Like many classic boxing movies (‘Raging Bull’ & ‘Rocky’) what makes ‘Ali’ great is what the director focuses on OUTSIDE of the ring as well as inside. In between those 2 historic matches (Liston & Foreman), Mann touches on Ali’s relationships with the Nation Of Islam & Malcolm X, women, his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (which led to him being stripped of his heavyweight title) and his relationship with Howard Cosell (played by John Voight). What made ‘Raging Bull’ standout among all the other boxing movies was Scorsese’s focus on Jake Lamotta’s legal troubles, his love life and his rocky relationship with his brother. In ‘Rocky’, what made that movie so great (besides the classic “underdog” angle) was his relationship with “Adrien”.
Trust me, in 2001 I was one of those people who went; “Wait, What?! The Fresh Prince is playing Muhammad Ali?” But at the end of the day Will Smith did a good job. Not great, but good. As much as I’ve come to like this film over the years, rarely did i feel that Will Smith COMPLETELY transformed in to Ali like everyone says. I know some people may wanna crucify me for saying such a thing, but that’s just how I feel. His performance got him by. He definitely bulked up and was dedicated to the role, but the only time Smith felt like Ali to me were the press conference scenes where he’d trash talk his opponent. It would’ve been interesting to see an “unknown” play the part (just throwing that out there. relax). Sorry, but we’re running out of (good) young/young-ish black actors in America. Will Smith, Jefferey Wright, Don Cheadle & Terrence Howard are in their 40’s and Denzel Washington is in his mid-50’s. I seriously think one of the main reasons that so many biopics on important black figures like Stokley Carmichael and Angela Davis haven’t come out is because Hollywood doesn’t know how to break new young black (film) actors. They always look at who’s current, available or relevant when it comes time to play a part. Rarely do you see a young black actor or actress “made” or “discovered” in the same vein as a Chris Hemsworth (Thor) or Sam Worthington (Clash Of The Titans, Avatar). You know this is all true. I mean, after Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington…who’s left?
Now, the performances that DID make me love ‘Ali’ came from the supporting cast. In the last decade Michael Mann has gathered together some great supporting players in his films. With ‘Miami Vice’ he had Justin Theroux, Eddie Marsan and Isaach Debankole. In ‘Public Enemies’ he got Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Curdup (who, in my opinion, did a great job as J Edgar Hoover), Stephen Graham and Carey Mulligan. In ‘Ali’, among the supporting cast of John Voight, Jada Pinkett, Jeffery Wright, Ron Silver, Ted Levine (in an uncredited role) and Giancarlo Espisito (who for whatever reason was cast as Muhammad Ali’s father, even though he’s only 9 years older than Will Smith) the standout performance came from Jaime Foxx as Drew Bundini. Just imagine if the title role of Ali was played by an “unknown”/newcomer with a remaining cast of well known supporting actors like John Voight, Jeffery Wright and Jaime Foxx? Something to think about. Just Sayin…
I think one reason a lot of people doubted that Mann could pull this film off was because when you’re dealing with an iconic figure like Muhammad Ali, you’re dealing with a lot more than just a boxer. He was an iconic figure among black people. It seems like ever since ‘Malcolm X’, Spike Lee is the only choice to direct any important story concerning black people. But what some of you fail to realize (and forgive me for saying what I’m about to say) is this would have been a post-2000/‘Bamboozled’ Spike Lee film, which means there’s a strong chance Lee’s version of ‘Ali’ would’ve been a big disappointment like so many other films he’s done in the last decade. Sorry, but I’d rather watch ‘Girl 6’ twice in a row on repeat then watch ‘She Hate Me’ again. And ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ was a ploy to win over fans that didn’t like Spike Lee. He figured making a war movie would put him in the good graces of America, but his mouth got him in trouble during promotion for the film (he criticized Clint Eastwood’s recent war film ’ Flags Of Our Fathers’ and that didn’t sit well with white Americans).
Spike Lee was definitely sour about not being picked to direct ‘Ali’. Between the pre-production and release of Ali, he had the following things to say…
“I would say I do know more about white culture than Michael Mann knows about black culture, and I will say Ali was indicative of that” (OUCH!)
“I wanted to do it, but Will didn’t want me to direct it”
“Few white directors can get our stuff right. Ali didn’t get it. I’m tired of other people documenting our history”
Rumor has it that Will Smith didn’t want Spike Lee to direct ‘Ali’ because of his harsh (and just) criticism of ‘The Legend Of Bagger Vance’.
Besides Spike Lee, what other black directors at the time could have made this film? By 2000/2001 John Singleton was on his way to selling out (and he hasn’t stopped since), Robert Townsend fell in to direct-to-video obscurity, Mario Van Peeples (who ironically co-starred in ‘Ali’) failed to do the Black Panthers’ story justice in 1995 so I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the Muhammad Ali story, and his father Melvin was (and still is) enjoying his cult status in Europe. This kind of a project would have been too big for Matty Rich (no disrespect, but its true), Wendall B Harris had fallen in to obscurity as well, Steve Mcqueen (‘Hunger’ & ‘Shame’) hadn’t started directing feature films yet and I don’t see the Hudlin Brothers pulling this one off either (‘House Party’ is one thing, but I dunno about ‘Ali’). Charles Burnett would have been an interesting choice with the right budget, but lets be honest…a name like Charles Burnett doesn’t hold the same weight as Michael Mann. And just because a prominent black director cant make a film about a prominent black figure doesn’t mean the movie should just be scrapped. I mean its not like Brett Ratner directed ‘Ali’. Michael Mann is one of the last studio directors working today that actually has style. Naturally, people are sceptical about a white director (especially a white director like Mann who’s never really dealt with social issues in his films outside of ‘The Insdier’) dealing with important issues concerning Black America (especially during the 60’s & 70’s). But Mann did a pretty good job if you ask me (the first 10 minutes of ‘Ali’ showed a lot of unspoken racial tension). And lets not forget that Norman Jewison directed ‘A Soldiers Story’, Jim Jarmusch directed ‘Ghost Dog’ and Spielberg did direct ‘The Color Purple’. So every once in a while a white director can do a black story justice (keep in mind i said EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE). The only criticism I have towards Mann’s focus on black issues in ‘Ali’ was the Malcolm X angle. It just seemed to go on for too long and it took away from Muhammad Ali’s story. For the first 40 minutes of the movie, ‘Ali’ almost feels like a joint biopic of both X and Ali. Many people don’t realize this, but Spike Lee was the THIRD director chosen to direct ‘Malcolm X’. First it was Norman Jewison, then it was Michael Mann and finally Spike Lee got the job. Something tells me Mann’s elongated focus on Malcolm X in ‘Ali’ was kinda like a shot at Spike Lee (Mann actually went so far as to re-shoot the scene of Malcolm X’s death the way it actually happened). Mann even got 2 actors who co-starred in ‘Malcolm X’ to appear in ‘Ali’ (Giancarlo Espisito and Al Freeman).
I highly recommend giving this another chance (for those of you who weren’t crazy about it 10 years ago like i was) or actually give it a FIRST chance to begin with (for those blind Spike Lee fans who have actually never seen the movie but still judge it. And I know there’s some of you out there).