Muhammad Ali was one of the great cultural figures of the 20th century, and of course, one of its most brilliant and inspiring sports figures, equally adept in the ring and in the hurly-burly of social and political activism. So we might have expected some of that importance and complexity to be on display in Antoine Fuqua’s heavyweight 160-minute documentary on “the Greatest.” But not so fast, says our reporter Claire Baiz in her third dispatch from Tribeca. Claire suggests in this review that this is less an exploration of Ali’s identity than an extensive retelling, albeit in Ali’s own voice, of a tale already told.
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I feel like I just went fifteen rounds.
I knew this movie was about Muhammed Ali. I just didn’t realize there’d be so much … boxing.
It sounds naive, but with a title like What’s My Name, I expected an exploration of Ali’s struggle for identity … maybe a little less pugilism.
The title is inspired by a 1967 confrontation between Ali and fellow boxer Ernie Terrell. To the delight of foghorn-voiced sportscaster Howard Cosell, as part of the pre-fight hype, Ali recited an insulting poem he had written about the 6’7” Terrell.
Terrell, who is also African American, retorted by calling Ali by his birth name – Cassius Clay – instead of Muhammad Ali, the name Ali adopted when he joined the Nation of Islam, also known at that time as the Black Muslims.
Ali bristled, calling Terrell an “Uncle Tom.” The fight nearly started right then and there – and almost took out the grinning, microphone-wielding Cosell.
In the championship bout, between lighting-fast punches, Ali punished Terrell, asking “What’s my name?” until Terrell’s face was a bloody pulp. Ali won.
Ali fought again and again (and again) for the title, but he also fought for his name. I wanted What’s My Name to tell me why. Instead, bout after bout, numbers flash onscreen: 6-0. 19-0. 31-1 … After Ali’s last beating against Trevor Berbeck (you can hardly call it a fight), there it is, on cue: Ali’s final win/loss score, 56 – 5.
Ali’s impressive record is a convenient but not incredibly creative way of vesting the audience. The title of this documentary isn’t “What’s My Number” – it’s What’s My Name.
The credits list LeBron James; director Antoine Fuqua; Maverick Carter, Bill Gerber, Glen Zipper, Paul Wachter, and Jamie Salter as executive producers; and Sean Stuart as the producer.
Fuqua directed Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen, boxing drama Southpaw, and Showtime’s Equalizer. LeBron is … well, LeBron. Maverick Carter has done important work, onscreen and off. In partnership with LeBron, he founded Uninterrupted, a multimedia platform for athletes of all levels. Carter also produced Vince Carter’s story, The Carter Effect. Academy Award nominee Bill Gerber, former president of production at Warner Bros., was a producer on A Star Is Born and Gran Torino. Gerber worked on LA Confidential, JFK, You’ve Got Mail, and the Harry Potter films.
I apologize for the extensive filmography, but I have a point: these aren’t first-time filmmakers. They’re seasoned pros with nice budgets and creative leeway. If this was the debut of a new documentarian, I’d say it shows plenty of promise. It’s well organized, nicely paced, and peppered with humor and the upheaval of Ali’s era.
As at least two dozen previous documentaries on Muhammad Ali have demonstrated, Ali is a compelling subject, in and out of the ring.
What’s My Name is a creditable, if exhaustive 160-minute, two-part effort. So much of the documentary is fight footage, there were moments I wanted Angelo Dundee to rub my shoulders and urge me to “hang in there.”
The greatest thing about What’s My Name is that it’s told in the voice of “the Greatest” himself. Ali’s beat-infused baritone and sharp, gritty wit command the screen, whether he’s throwing punches or slamming poetry.
I was hoping for a documentary that would, in the words of Ali, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I kept waiting for the clip of Ali, in a five-inch Afro and full beard, singing “We Came in Chains” on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s on DailyMotion.com, it’s pivotal to the question implied by the documentary’s title – and it’s damn good – if grainy – entertainment. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4r5su. It’s not in the movie.
I’m not a big boxing fan, but I grew up with three brothers. One had a LeRoy Neiman splatter poster of the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight over his bed. Oscar Bonavena made my whole family laugh. My hometown – Great Falls, Montana – produced its own Olympic contender, welterweight Todd Foster.
I’ve always admired Ali. In his youth (and mine), he was downright beautiful – his face, his body, his moves, his refusal to serve in what he felt was an unjust war.
A mere moment is devoted to young Cassius Clay’s self-professed ignorance of the Clay family name. Little mention is made of Ali’s parents, his four marriages, his affairs, his children. His complicated relationship with daughter Laila, a professional boxer in her own right, was ignored. Could his family have helped answer the film’s title question?
I would have loved to have seen more of the symbiotic relationship between Ali and Howard Cosell. Cosell, Ali’s obnoxious foil and frenemy, more than knew Ali’s name – he helped make it famous.
When personal notes are hit, What’s My Name resonates. Young Cassius Clay’s new bike was stolen outside a theater in Louisville. Twelve-year-old Clay reported the crime to Police Sgt. Joe Martin, who happened to be a boxing trainer. Martin urged the kid to get a little training before seeking revenge for his lost Schwinn. (Thanks, Joe.)
In another poignant moment, Clay’s social conscience was galvanized after he won gold at the 1960 Olympics. The young champion thought, “I can eat downtown now.”
Ali was wrong. Even with Olympic gold, he was refused service. In his hometown.
At age eighteen, making $400 a month and 50% of the gate, Clay signed on with a local promoter and met career-long trainer Angelo Dundee.
In a particularly endearing scene, Ali towers over diminutive intellectual talk-show host Dick Cavett in Ali’s training camp cabin: there’s no electricity, a hand-pump, a wood stove, a 200-year-old rope bed, and a dusty stuffed pheasant.
There are brief clips and still shots of Ali with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, but little of their interaction is offered – it seems out of place when Fuqua interjects a scene about Malcolm X’s falling-out with the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammed, and RFK announcing Martin Luther King’s death. Powerful moments, yes. But how did those moments affect Ali?
Ali’s most famous act outside the ring, his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces during the Vietnam war, was wedged into What’s My Name with archival footage of soldiers who, while serving their country in the jungles of Southeast Asia, supported Ali’s claim as a conscientious objector.
How did Ali cope during the tumultuous years his draft case was under appeal, stripped of his boxing championship? Where was he? How did his family react? This is a five-year black hole in the film, ending when the Supreme Court rules in Ali’s favor, 8-0.
The last half of this two-part documentary begins with the bout that represented the apex of boxing’s influence on mainstream American culture: 1971’s Fight of the Century: Muhammed Ali vs. Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden.
Frazier won the unanimous decision, but Ali won the respect of people who wanted to see the outspoken draft dodger put in his place. Later, Ali would beat Frazier. Twice.
What’s My Name doesn’t pull punches depicting Ali’s decline. At age 39, as he leaves the ring, his feet as heavy as his heart, he sighs, “Father Time caught me.”
After that last bout, Ali appears on Arsenio Hall’s TV talk show, where he reveals the obvious: he had Parkinson’s disease.
Ali didn’t let his disease interfere with his five daily prayers or his sense of social justice. He traveled to Africa, won the Bill of Rights Award in 1988, and with a shaky arm, ignited the Olympic Torch in Atlanta in 1996. Ali died in June 2016 at the age of 74.
What’s My Name plays rope-a-dope with its title. If you want to watch it, don’t expect a KO or TKO: it’s your decision.
I’m throwing in the towel.