MUHAMMAD ALI, THE GREATEST
(director/writer: William Klein; cinematographer: Étienne Becker/William Klein/Richard Suzuki/Patrice Wyers; editor: Francine Grubert/Eva Zora; music: Mickey Baker; Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bert Brown; Facets; 1975)
“Quirky enough to blow smoke around most other boxing documentaries.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A jarring intimate cinema verite documentary on the legendary and controversial arrogant and proud to be black heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who had the birth name of Cassius Clay, that covers him from 1964-1974. It takes a back seat in the boxing footage department to Leon Gast’s much superior 1976 When We Were Kings, but is quirky enough to blow smoke around most other boxing documentaries. It’s written and directed by American expatriate photographer and filmmaker William Klein (“Messiah”/”Who are you Molly Maggoo?”/ “Far From Vietnam”).
The first part is in black-and-white and begins by showing the big talking cocky Cassius Clay in Miami preparing for his 1964 fight with the overwhelming favorite to win, the menacing heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. And, after his upset win joins the Black Muslims and takes the name Muhammad Ali; he then beats the big bad Liston again in a rematch in Lewiston, Maine, using a punch that was delivered at such great speed almost no one saw it bring Liston down in the first round. Klein follows Ali training, horsing around for the camera, his penchant for comic buffoonery, greeting his followers with rhymes and trash-talking with his entourage (but with no cursing). The Beatles pose with him, members of the Louisville Syndicate (important elderly white business owners from Clay’s hometown who sponsored the fighter) speak frankly about him being an ingrate and come off as racists, and the soon-to-be assassinated in two weeks time Malcolm X gives a startling close-up interview in which he suggests that the boxer is dangerous to the white establishment because “If people started identifying with Cassius, there would be Negroes running around everywhere saying, ‘I am the greatest.’ ”
The second part is in full color, and picks up after Ali in 1967 is stripped of his title when he refused his draft notice for the Vietnam War and became a conscientious objector. The conviction was overturned in 1971. After a layoff of over five years and losing his first two fights in his comeback due to rust, Ali goes to Zaire to battle the new champ George Foreman in the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” and wins back the heavyweight crown.
The film’s value is in its behind-the-scenes look at the champ which gives us another look at the complex Ali that helps us try and understand him a little better. Certainly a flawed work, but nevertheless quite diverting and interesting to see the champ at the top of his verbal and pugilistic game. It’s rare footage that has never been seen before and extends in historical value outside the realm of boxing since he was such a well-known pop culture figure of his time. It shows throughout the film that Ali was a natural PR man and had a childishly pleasing way of hiding himself behind charming quotes like this one: “I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
REVIEWED ON 3/26/2008 GRADE: B