One of Muhammad Ali’s biggest struggles culminated in 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle, where it seemed that the spirit of the progressive forces in the world was about to battle the spirit of the repressive status quo.
Early on, Cassius Clay related to the wider world. His father was interested in Marcus Garvey and pan-Africanism. Cassius started reading “Muhammad Speaks” in 1959. In the early ‘60s, the front page may have featured the opening of a Nation of Islam haberdashery on 64th Street in Chicago, but buried in the middle pages were national liberation struggles in the third world, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, gleaming new public housing in Nkrumah’s Ghana.
Then, when he became world champion and changed his religion and declared himself free of every Jim Crow assumption and expectation including his slave name (“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show that to the world.”) and began the biggest fight of his life, he outraged everyone from white racists, white moderates and mainstream media to Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Joe Louis.
Ali knew he bore the burden of symbolic representation to Black America. He embraced it. He would build a motivational figure made out of life, itself. His life. And, it cost him. Denouncing the war and refusing the draft cost Ali – in addition to “millions and millionses of dollars” — the revocation of his boxing licenses and a fighter’s prime years. In a way we may never have seen the very best of Ali. It would have occurred between ages 25 to 29. In 1974 both of his struggles reached their zenith in Kinshasa.
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The Rumble in the Jungle polarized the world. Ali, the angry jokester, the genius athlete who spoke truth to power, inspired everyone from John Carlos and Tommie Smith through the anti-war movement to Nelson Mandela. He was the spirit king, the inspiration for “black, brown and poor people” rising up from below in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the U.S. Foreman personified (involuntarily) the status quo, the moderate establishment devoted to order, not to justice, “who paternalistically feel that they can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” (MLK, Jr.), that they can determine when people held down are allowed to arise from the abyss.
In Mozambique in Mavalane, a favela outside Maputo, we were shooting a scene in “Ali” in which Will was running through alleyways and dusty streets with packs of local kids. After I cut, the crowd didn’t. They picked up Will and carried him away on their shoulders, shouting “Ali booma ye” (“Ali kill him!”). To them they weren’t carrying Will Smith, they were carrying Ali. They had nearly no idea who Will Smith was. There were almost no movie theaters in Mozambique. They had never seen “Men in Black” or “Independence Day.” But, they knew the hero, Muhammad Ali. Everybody on the planet knew Muhammad Ali.
In his prime, he fought with the speed and agility of a welterweight but hit as a heavyweight. He threw punches 25% faster than Sugar Ray Robinson but weighed 50 lbs. more and they landed with 1,000 foot lbs. of force. In the ring with him, the shuffle bewildered you. You couldn’t tell if the left or right would come at you first. Combined with a flurry of head and shoulder feints, snapped lightning jabs to confuse your vision, the result was disorienting, and then came the right hand. Give up. Lie down. Genius is genius, whether it’s Einstein or Ayrton Senna or Michael Jordan. It’s conceiving what’s never been done before.
In the blistering ring, pounded by Foreman, Ali, now past his prime, was deep into “rope-a-dope.” Pounded by Foreman, he slipped many of the punches or angled away from their major impact, but more than a few times he compelled himself with sheer will not to sink into that “comfortable green room of unconsciousness.” He’d rather die than lose because he was a fighter and because of what it meant to the whole world watching.
When we made “Ali,” Will Smith dedicated a year to become Ali. No director ever had a better, more stand-up partner. In the early days, in one of my meetings with Ali, he said one of the most important concerns to him was that there be no idolatry. No sugarcoating. He made mistakes and he wanted all of them included. His life was his life, and he was proud of the totality of it and would not want it diminished by hagiography. That was when the serious depth and character of the man first opened up to me. It led me to ask what mistake he most regretted. It was his rejection of Malcolm X. Malcolm had been expelled from the Nation of Islam and Ali had been convinced by Elijah Muhammad to renounce his friend and mentor.
Earlier, Malcolm had planned their joint trip to Africa, Ali’s first. Then, came the schism. But, as it happened – traveling separately — their paths crossed. Malcolm was leaving the Ambassador Hotel in Accra with Maya Angelou as Ali’s party with Howard Bingham was arriving. Malcolm was thrilled to run into him. Ali coldly turned his back. As they parted, it never occurred to Ali that he would never see him again. Malcolm was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom shortly thereafter.
Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm’s eldest daughter, worked with us on the film. During one of his visits I asked Ali if he wanted to meet her. It was eerie because she so resembled Malcolm; it was as if Malcolm X was in the room. They met. Ali told her he loved her father and how much he regretted never being able to make things right between them. They talked for a long time.
Against the tide of conventions, Ali had said, “I get to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be.”
Ali was one of the bravest men I ever met.