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NYFF 2020: ‘Muhammad Ali: The Greatest’ Review: Exhilarating and Clever as The Man Himself

Films Paris-New York

Few people in history have had legitimate claim to be ‘the greatest’ at anything. Muhammad Ali said it so assertively, so proudly, so fearlessly and so frequently that for sheer force of will alone, it’s hard to argue with the man. In a sport, and a country, and a world so dominated by volume and character, asserting oneself can be at least half the battle – William Klein’s documentary elegantly and wordlessly demonstrates how Ali understood this better than anyone, and the second he opened his mouth, he had already won. 

The documentary is split into two distinct sections, as imposing block text explains at the beginning. First, 1964: notoriously motor-mouthed up-and-comer Cassius Clay is poised to take on the reigning champion, Sonny Liston. Tensions flare and egos are bruised as Clay barrels past expectations and bellows far and wide what a formidable opponent he is and how ridiculous it was that anyone should have ever doubted him. Then, 1974: after a decade of activism, leadership, and valiantly enduring the condemnation of white America, Muhammad Ali must take the fight to Kinshasa, where he takes on George Foreman to prove he is still, in fact, the greatest. The people of Zaire, young and old, delight in the chance to see The Champ, and hail this event as a chance for Africa to join the world stage. Both sections are filled with fascinating footage, interviews, details and implications, and complement each other with a dazzling dedication to characterizing both Ali the person and “Ali” the image during this period. 

Films Paris-New York

The 1964 section is filmed in stunning black-and-white, newly restored in crisp high definition. Klein maneuvers through all sorts of spaces relating to the upcoming title brawl, including the sweaty back rooms where managers and owners argue over salaries and contracts, and the bustling street corners where laymen and exuberant teenagers weigh in on who will win, who should win, and who the powers that be want to win. The boxer formerly known as Clay is given ample opportunity to weigh in himself, and regularly turns to the camera to explain a point he has just made or lay out the way he sees a particular situation. At times, he and his right-hand man Drew Bundini Brown (who, serendipitously, appeared in two Shaft films) simply egg each other on, pull faces, and rile up crowds with full-throated declarations that Clay will wipe the floor with Liston and anyone else who doubts him. But in other moments, which Klein expertly weaves in to contrast the self-aggrandizing, Clay calmly and eloquently describes exactly what he is doing, and why it matters in the grand scheme of American racial politics. His articulation of his approach is balanced, incisive, and timeless — a level of self-awareness and intellect few white Americans cared to acknowledge at the time, and startlingly few documentaries on Ali remember to highlight. 

Klein, however, underscores the man’s wit and impact at every turn. He features interpretations from Black sociologists, commentators, and fans, creating a tapestry of admiration and adoration for the young boxer’s personality — so young, at the time, it can be startling, as Clay was only twenty-two when he became world champion. Yet at this age he was already gifted at spinning narratives and perceptions in his favor. Like it or not, his on-camera attitude makes it impossible not to love listening to him; you’ll find yourself chanting along with “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” and mimicking his hearty wide-mouthed leer while psyching himself and an audience up. Klein fashions Clay as a beacon of energy and pride, something Black Americans at this point in time were struggling to keep hold of. Perhaps the only lacking element to this section is the lack of footage of any actual boxing – restrictions kept Klein from filming the fight itself, but everything before and after the event is captured in revealing detail, subtly suggesting that the events within the ring really became secondary to the personality and meaning Ali carried into it.

Films Paris-New York

After Clay becomes The Champ, Klein follows up with some coverage of the cancelled attempt at a rematch, before leaping ten years ahead. In a quick but meaningful interlude, text explains what happened to Clay in the intervening period, including his refusal to participate in the  Vietnam War, his resulting excommunication from (white) American celebrity, and his name-change to become Muhammad Ali. Now in Kinshasa, Klein does not show Ali onscreen for a significant amount of time, instead focusing on the excitement and anticipation rippling though the city’s citizens. This section is shot in vibrant color; though the hue of the film initially seems over-saturated, it is simply the landscapes and settings of the area providing an eye-popping combination of lush green and multi-colored garments and textures. It is a stunning series of visuals before the subject of boxing is even mentioned again. 

The upcoming event would eventually come to be known as the Rumble in the Jungle, a seminal occasion responsible for solidifying the career of promoter Don King, continuing the notoriety of Ali as a fighter and personality, and introducing many to the vibrancy and character of central Africa. Ali puts on many of the same theatrical, ingeniously attention-grabbing airs while training in front of broad audiences of fans and spectators, and while some of his jeers and jabs at Foreman seem a little harsh, the showmanship of it all is just as captivating as it was a decade earlier. More so than he did with Liston, Klein takes care to follow Foreman around a few times, particularly highlighting his gentle demeanor and good sportsmanship before and after the big fight. Where the 1964 showdown smacks of immense stakes and sharp shoulders, the 1974 event feels softer, more fun, and more endearing, largely due to the palpable glee with which the country’s citizens welcome the fighters and engage with the documentary crew. Like before, groups of teens and adults weigh in on their preference between Ali and Foreman, and though some favor Foreman for victory, most are ecstatic to have Ali in their city, and are rooting wholeheartedly for him. Again, though the film does not include any actual footage of the fight, the peripheral atmosphere is captured with exquisite detail — and in another neat repetition from the first section, another unforgettable chant is introduced, as crowds of children gleefully jump up and down singing “Ali, bumaye!” or, “Ali, kill him!” Though a little harsh, the chant makes clear the Champ’s showmanship is infectious, and his presence and pride have genuinely uplifted Black people the world over.

Films Paris-New York

Klein’s documentary stands head-and-shoulders above most sports hagiographies by respecting the multifaceted humanity surrounding the legend. Ali himself is thoroughly characterized as a compelling, thoughtful, but no less exhilarating person, a rare example of legitimate athletic greatness coupled with self-aware utilization of his considerable intellect. Klein’s film wordlessly captures this layered presence with a keen eye and thorough approach, crafting a film as thrilling as it is personable, as exciting as it is intellectual, as delightful as it is grounded. A worthy portrayal of The Greatest, and as sports documentaries go, one of the greatest of this kind in its own right. 

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