Gloriously Bored - on 'I Am Ali'

Oliver Goldstein
09/05/2015 12:55am

For a man with the lead role, Phillip ‘Chip’ McAlister is somewhat subdued in his 1977 big screen debut. It’s not that he's bad: McAlister laughs, smiles, and scowls in all the right places. It's not even that he's inexperienced: the role was McAlister's first in professional acting, before he found himself in films like 'Hamburger: The Motion Picture'. Playing a fresh-faced Cassius Clay in the film adaptation of The Greatest, McAlister’s problem is more basic: he’s simply not Muhammad Ali.

Never one to cede the spotlight, at 35 Ali had hoped to play the part of himself, a trompe l'oeil if ever there's been one, but even he was convinced to cede performance of the 18-year-old Clay to a youthful hired hand. In any case, McAlister serves his purpose in Ali’s megalomaniacal dance. Pretty, but not gorgeous, high-pitched, yet not quite tinnital, McAlister is never more than a vague hallucination of the charming young Clay: there’s something song-like about him, but he’s mostly echo all the same. Where Ali’s bubbling mouth and swift fists used to cut a swathe through the blurred edges of his shifting politics, McAlister simply blurs instead. This, though, seems to be the point: even when the ageing Ali isn’t onscreen, he becomes a superabundant presence-in-absence nonetheless. Indeed, after just fifteen minutes of McAlister, the film transitions through a montage of past knockouts and gawky smiles into Ali, brashness and beauty incarnate, playing before us his late youth as Cassius Marcellus Clay. "You know who I am, don’t ya," he soon says to a passer-by.

Of course, the woman, white, blonde, and attractive, doesn’t know him (and, at the same time, of course she does). In this set-piece, late Clay picks her up, wins her attention, and smooth-talks his way into a night together, before the Nation of Islam, ready and waiting outside a nearby hotel, diverts him from catastrophe. Clay looks longingly in her direction; she slinks off into the shadows with one brief glance behind. As with the girls at high school who used to cringe on the bus when Clay called out their names, he proves unable to command her attention. The racial politics of the gesture are clear. To white America, Clay is forgettable; only the black Nation of Islam sees his true value.

The scene does not age well, but it yet says much about Ali. Even at the twilight of his remarkable career, long-established as one of the world’s most foremost celebrities, Ali still wants everyone to know precisely who he is: the earlier line, delivered as Clay, nods playfully at the fame and film to come, the fame that has happened, and the film that is happening. As one of his former classmates has said, "I wonder what all those women think now."[1]

Playing himself was no novelty to Ali; the very nature of his myth was constituted in performance. "His whole life was this energetic display that would exhaust absolutely anybody," Gil Rogin once told Thomas Hauser.[2] So excitable were these performances that Ali, once in private, would often fall instantly to sleep. When Tom Wolfe visited Clay at the Americana Hotel in 1964 before his first fight with Sonny Liston, the young heavyweight, staying on the 42nd floor, proceeded to play before Wolfe his entire encounter with Liston in a Las Vegas casino. "He has a whole act about it," wrote Wolfe, "beginning with a pantomime of him shoving open the swinging doors and standing there bowlegged, like a beer delivery man. Then he plays the part of the crowd falling back and whispering, ‘It’s Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay.’ Then he plays the part of an effete Las Vegas hipster at the bar with his back turned, suddenly freezing in mid-drink, as the hush falls over the joint, and sliding his eyes around to see the duel. Then he plays the part of Cassius Clay stalking across the floor with his finger pointed at Sonny Liston and saying, ‘You big ugly bear’, ‘You big ugly bear’, about 18 times." When an audience gathered later around the fighter in the Metropole Café, Wolfe thought him ‘gloriously bored.’

If his performances then were designed to indulge the large crowds following him, in 'The Greatest', their purpose seems solely to indulge himself. Twice, George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ sings its expansive triumph over slow-motion shots of Ali running and shadowboxing, while amid clips cut from past fights, Ali plays himself in the corner between rounds. Wearing his old ring gear, feigning tiredness, and always professing wisdom, there is something dearly charming about these scenes, despite the poverty of acting talent on display. Late Ali is nostalgic: at 35, the world’s most famous man goes in search of a temps perdu, performing himself to try reliving the faded lustre of his past. But, as with McAlister, Ali can conjure nothing more substantial than a ghost. Success is fugitive, like the years.

Ghostliness might indeed be the essential quality of Ali in the time since his last great win, the triumph in Manila against Frazier. Few boxers have the physical vim to create a Saidian ‘late style’ at the ends of their careers: late seventies Ali, bereft of his speed, and possibly dealing already with the early onset of Parkinson’s, in turn lacked the precision and clarity which had been hallmarks of his sixties swing. As all fighters do, he finished his career spent. Then converted into an eighties establishment figure once neoliberal America felt ready to profit from his glorious return-from-exile narrative, Ali-as-radical was consigned to the dusklands when torch-bearing Ali, his symbolic capital intact, emerged. Now silenced permanently by the static of disease, Ali is a saintly cartoon in remembrance today.

Claire Lewins’s 'I Am Ali', released to US cinemas and on-demand platforms last year, fails to deviate from this set path, mixing old ‘audio journals’ with recent interviews to provide the latest version of the Ali myth. Sons, daughters, brothers, ex-wives, family and friends all sing the praises of a man described herein as having God in his eyes – but in 'I Am Ali', as before in 'The Greatest', the erstwhile champion is everpresent in his absence. The difference this time is that Ali never appears.

The result is a strange thing, in which Ali’s past (always more interesting than allowed to be) haunts the kindly ghost Lewins’s film wants to create. In the process, her interviewees often try to re-accommodate a complex history in a simple present. At one point, Gene Kilroy, a former member of Ali’s inside circle, considers possible other paths had Ali not boxed. "He might have been a great lawyer," says Kilroy. "Could you imagine him with a Harvard degree out of law school, going before a jury? Wow! Case dismissed." But the reflex that prompts Kilroy to draw an alternative history remains deeply suspect: implicitly, Kilroy’s re-imagined path sees Ali becoming part of a white establishment without any of the difficulty or complexity of his Louisville youth and subsequent career. What psychic structures demand Ali be 'rehabilitated' like this?

He didn’t need a Harvard degree to grasp the immense potential of his position as heavyweight champion, nor did he need a Harvard degree to utter some of the most famous phrases of sixties America. As Ali himself said after his conversion to the Nation of Islam, "I don’t have to be what you want me to be." Even before he told the world how "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger", Ali, then Clay, was described in Ebony as "a blast furnace of racial pride… a pride scorched with memories of millions of little burns." But still our present climate, as represented by a steady supply of filmmakers and writers, wants Ali to be something else. As Mike Marqusee noted in the exemplary Redemption Song, "a complex and contradictory reality has been homogenized and repackaged for sale in an ever-burgeoning marketplace for cultural commodities."[3] Great heroes don’t die; instead, they get recycled.

Nonetheless, Ali’s absence is itself a kind of eloquence. If the many interviewees in 'I Am Ali', among them Tom Jones and British ‘super-fan’ Russ Routledge, seem often to become mere noise, Ali’s silence is crisp and clear, demarcating precisely the gaping void between reality and re-animation. Moreover, that silence speaks to the terrible dangers at boxing’s dark heart, stinging as sharply now as the fabled bee of his doggerel verse once did.

October last year marked the fortieth anniversary of ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, when Ali beat Foreman in Zaire. Perhaps because boxing is a sport of such swift, intense exposure, the blows Ali took that night seem just another part of his mythos and legend. But their ghostliness now is a fraud: their impact remains hidden in plain sight, dangerously embodied in the gaunt figure and lost voice of Ali today. His former opponent, Ken Norton, once suggested that only Elvis could rival Ali for making an entrance. But while Elvis fled the building, Ali remains trapped inside.

[1] Thomas Hauser and Bart Barry, The Legend of Muhammad Ali (Metro Books, 2010).

[2] Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (Pocket Books, 1992).

[3] Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song (Verso 2005).