Antoine Fuqua’s HBO doc about the greatest fighter of all time is an intriguing if uneven dive into the man behind the myth.
Among the pantheon of athlete all-timers, Muhammad Ali is not only one of the most oft-documented, but also one of the easiest to mythologize. Epitomizing the larger-than-life quality of his reputation, Ali was as well known for his nimble footwork in the ring as his memorable and emphatic expressions of personal greatness. But even as HBO’s two-part movie, What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali eschews a cradle-to-the-grave chronology for a more romanticized throughline – decades of his life including his early life and personal life are almost entirely ignored – this isn’t looking to galvanize the discussion in the same way as something like ESPN’s warts and all crossover hit, OJ: Made In America. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Steven Leckart preserve his legacy as a trailblazer, but it’s a more holistic approach to history and his personal politics where the most engaging revelations emerge.
Sports documentaries have long been shifting away from stock formats, leaving behind talking heads inserts and formulaic voiceover. This is another example of pure archival footage presented without visual context or interstitials. And true to the legendary boxer’s reputation, the footage refuses to shy away from the contradictions of his personal and public personas. His snowballing ego is always at the forefront here even as the ravages of years of battering punches (and later, Parkinson’s) provide a counterpoint to his own insistence on his immortality.
But in presenting this material entirely in the context of news and television footage, the more pointed contexts for his identity carry new weight. Fuqua and Leckart especially find a smart method to not overplay their hand with Ali’s long relationship with the Nation of Islam by weaning into Ali’s explicit politicizing on talk shows. One of the greatest pleasures of the documentary, in general, is watching the way Ali is able to play so easily for the camera while also couching smart and edgy insights between pithy jokes and rhymes.
The Nation of Islam material especially contextualizes the ways that Ali’s conversion was viewed with both a lens of Islamophobia and general skepticism – a phase for a celebrity rather than a complete lifestyle change. As the media footage runs interference on this new understanding of one of the most famous people in the world, the doc’s overall shape finds one of its most productive lines of inquiry in the ways that Ali’s fealty to Islam coexists with his expectations to be one of the most famous people in the world. And even as over and over, his opponents and former coach refuse to call him by his Muslim name – sticking with his secular birth name, Cassius Clay. These moments stand as their own powerful critique of the ways the world places celebrities, and especially sports stars of color, into a box.
The first half of the documentary moves with an engaging efficiency, bulldozing through the arc of Ali being unbeatable only to slowly reveal the cracks in his composure. Flashing through early fights in a flash, the film doesn’t slow down until Ali’s infamous showdown with Sonny Liston. Coming after a litany of one punch and done match-ups with names lost to time and bad luck, this fight offers the first real view of what happens when “The Greatest” is brought in contact with the other people vying for that title.
In presenting this material entirely in the context of news and television footage, the more pointed contexts for his identity carry new weight.
The second half has a more difficult time establishing a sense of purpose, centralizing on a few monumental parts of his life in a more jumbled fashion. His conscientious objection of the Vietnam War is a major part of his narrative, but it’s harder for the film to transcend more than the vision of a man intoxicated with greatness as the footage shows him flitting in and out of retirement and toiling away at Fighter’s Heaven, his famous personal enclave. The film builds a palpable sadness as it moves forward but it also really feels the absence of any personal understanding of the man.
The boxing clips are still unimpeachable, a showcase for his fiercely charismatic personality and anchoring presence in the ring. He’s the type of man who throws out a vivid turn of phrase like “handcuff lightning” without an evident second of effort. And Fuqua’s structure delights in his braggadocio, backing Ali’s strut with the ebullient horns of Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, and a gaggle of Motown luminaries on the soundtrack.
Ali is one of the few figures imaginable whose very existence warrants this level of pageantry. And yet, even as there’s a fiery power to letting the man speak for himself through time, What’s My Name feels oddly hamstrung by its own intentions, flirting with cinematic fireworks with its editing and suggestively potent nostalgia of empty, worn, battlegrounds. But, by the end, the documentary feels less of a triumphant title match than the build to the ring of the bell.
What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali is currently available on HBO.