“Times change,” director Michael Mann says of what prompted him to revisit his 2001 Muhammad Ali biopic “Ali” for a “commemorative edition” Blu-ray. The new cut hits shelves today, on what would have been Ali’s 75th birthday. “What I was interested in, particularly now, was making more tangible the forces that were raised against him, all his adversaries, and linking them in a strong way.”
A director’s cut of the film was released in 2004, injecting eight-and-a-half minutes of material that both amplified the political strife of the times and deepened Ali’s kinship with sports journalist Howard Cosell, among other things. For the new release, Mann has pulled some of those Cosell elements back while keeping the political material in tact, shaving and trimming elsewhere for the shortest cut yet — though one still clocking in at a robust 151 minutes.
“It’s a combination of expanding certain things and compressing others,” Mann says.
A notoriously exacting filmmaker, Mann has often said you can tell how content he is with his films based on how he treats them when they make the leap to a new home video format. When movies like “Thief” and “The Last of the Mohicans” first transitioned from VHS to DVD, for example, he oversaw director’s cuts of each. He did the same for “Miami Vice” when it came to DVD and Blu-ray.
“Heat,” however, received microscopic tuning in its move to Blu-ray in 2015. (A home release of the film’s recent 4K transfer is on the way later this year.) Meanwhile, a new cut of “Blackhat” has screened publicly, though there are no plans at present to release it for the home market. Other movies, like “The Insider” and “Collateral,” haven’t been touched.
He has even gone back to tinker twice on occasion. Still unhappy with “Mohicans” in 2010, for instance, the director drew elements from both previous cuts for a “definitive” edition. And that’s exactly what he’s done now for “Ali,” which netted Oscar nominations for actors Will Smith and Jon Voight 16 years ago.
Mann says he was always unhappy with how the third act of the film ultimately delivered, climaxing with the epic Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman in 1974. Moving certain elements around, such as Ali’s second wife Belinda expressing doubt over whether he can survive the Foreman fight, helped align the desired impact. It’s a bit like a chiropractor adjusting the neck to work out lower-back kinks.
Scenes depicting various FBI COINTELPRO operations, surveillance of perceived domestic threats, and dealings in third world movements — with actor Bruce McGill serving as a touchstone throughout — have always been a bit enigmatic, and they still are. They provide the hint of something slithering within the fabric of the film. But they take on a deeper effect in the face of modern global unrest.
“In the heart of the Cold War, certain centrists were perceived as unreliable,” Mann says. “Their countries were destabilized and essentially a kleptocracy. There was no investment in infrastructure. And there was a threat posed by Lumumba in the Congo, the National Liberation Front movements, which led right into the war in Vietnam, and black militancy — particularly when it started to broaden laterally and include poor whites, hispanics, the anti-war movement. You then had the murder of Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, and earlier, Malcolm X. The country was much more polarized than we’re used to thinking. Even today it’s not as polarized.”
Which leaves the director wondering who among us with the kind of platform Ali had would sacrifice his or her greatest years for what is just. That’s exactly what Ali did when he refused to fight in Vietnam. With an incoming regime flexing its muscle, the levers of power in hand, it becomes an important question, and one of courage, too. As Mann wrote of Ali in Variety following the cultural icon’s death last June, “He would build a motivational figure made out of life, itself. His life. And, it cost him.”
Ali was also against type, Mann says, which made his impact all the more noteworthy. “Here you have the heavyweight boxing champion of the world coming out against the war, promoting a black value system right into the face of the dogma that creates the system he grew up in,” Mann says. “His rhetoric may have seemed extreme, but it had to be that way when he challenged the white value system — though he wasn’t the first — with ‘black is beautiful.’ He understood the nature of white imperialism that had black women straightening their hair and conforming to that system. When you espouse a black value system, you are striking at the core fundamental of assumed superiority, without which racist dogma cannot operate. He fought for a principle that had nothing to do with a ‘me, me, me’ obsession or focus, but for something outside of himself.”
Mann takes a moment to fondly remember Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Ky. It was a vibrant display of inclusion featuring evangelical ministers, rabbis, Buddhists, all stripes. “He had designed who should be on that podium, and it was exactly the way he was: proud, opinionated, and with the orientations of other people in full blossom,” Mann says. “It was a mess, and it was great, and funny. And that was Ali.”
The final frame of the “Ali” commemorative edition now pays further tribute to the man with with a card reading “Muhammad Ali: 1942 – 2016.”