It begins in pre-Civil Rights era Miami and ends in Kinshasa, Zaire, on a wave of "black is beautiful" sentiment; over the course of 10 years (the same decade covered by Michael Mann's 2001 ALI) a brash young boxer named Cassius... More
It begins in pre-Civil Rights era Miami and ends in Kinshasa, Zaire, on a wave of "black is beautiful" sentiment; over the course of 10 years (the same decade covered by Michael Mann's 2001 ALI) a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay becomes controversial former-world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, looking to reclaim his lost glory at the celebrated "Rumble in the Jungle." American expatriate photographer and filmmaker William Klein's film documents a turbulent time and an outsized personality, but the film's glories are in the details and its intimacy would be unimaginable in the rigidly spin-controlled atmosphere of 21st-century sports. Klein started shooting in glistening B&W before Clay's historic bout with heavyweight title-holder Sonny Liston, and captures the mediagenic underdog honing the trash talk for which he became famous — boastful, witty, aggressive but never obscene. Before the fight, Liston was the odds-on favorite; witnesses to Clay's upset victory came away knowing they'd seen the birth of a star. Shortly after, Clay joined the Black Muslims and became Muhammad Ali; the names on the ring robes changed, but the letters that spelled out "The Greatest" remained the same. Klein followed Ali through his rematch with Liston the following year, capturing both the fighter — training, meeting and greeting, relaxing — and his entourage. The soon-to-be assassinated Malcolm X is the most famous face in the crowd, but the most revealing interviews are with members of the Louisville Syndicate, local white business owners (including Louisville Courier-Journal associate publisher Worth Bingham) who sponsored the fledgling fighter. Their aristocratic complaints about Ali's ingratitude, coupled with one man's observation that since his mother's family was named Clay — her ancestors probably owned young Cassius's — speaks volumes about both the South and the boxer-sponsor relationship. In 1974, Klein returned to film the match against George Foreman that re-established Ali as an athlete and an icon. In 1967, Ali — then reigning heavyweight champion — refused on religious grounds to be inducted into the Vietnam-era military; Ali was stripped of his title, refused a license to fight in most states and convicted of draft dodging. That conviction was overturned in 1971, paving the way for his comeback. Though the historic 1974 fight was more extensively documented in Leon Gast's WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996), the juxtaposition of Klein's before-and-after footage is striking, and he never fails to draw an eloquent metaphor from the cacophony of day-to-day images.