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Body and Soul: Revisiting Michael Mann's "Ali"

Marking the passing of Muhammad Ali, Sony Pictures re-released Michael Mann’s 2001 film biography “Ali” last weekend. Less fanfare has greeted it than the “Purple Rain” resurgence that followed Prince’s death—the Purple One’s cult classic emerging everywhere from midnight movies to malls to baseball stadiums. “Ali” has no such status. Its reputation that of a prestigious and bloated misfire (like so many biopics), unworthy of The Greatest, whose indelible charisma in widely available moving images from the 1960s to the present overshadows the dramatist's contrivances to frame his life. To boxing and film fans, “Ali” is unfavorably compared to the acclaimed 1997 documentary “When We Were Kings,” which covers much of the same ground using archival footage. Revisiting “Ali” shows just how different it is from not only other Hollywood biographies, but other studio movies. It’s an imperfect but often stunning, impeccably acted, and somewhat abstract study of a body framed and exhibited by media, and the accompanying mind adept enough to lasso how his globally plastered photographic representation affects viewers. “Ali” is not about the spectacles it dramatizes, but the conscientiousness of looking and being looked at.

The film’s baggage includes the wishy-washy popular repute of Smith, an overstuffed canvas of supporting players who have little to chew on, and disappointed audiences expecting a more accessibly inspirational fact-based drama. Opening huge on Christmas 2001 (grossing around $25 million, a good chunk of change for an R-rated, 150-minute drama), “Ali”’s theatrical run barely made it to $60 million domestically, far below its $100+ million price tag. A hotly anticipated Oscar contender, only Smith and Jon Voight (unrecognizable in makeup as Howard Cosell) netted nominations, as a far more affable (and forgettable) movie biography, Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” swept the night with “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “Black Hawk Down” following-up with the tech prizes. None of that stuff, if you’re a thoughtful person, should probably have any bearing on how you look at a film. But also consider how “Ali” was about a black Muslim who defied the United States government’s military agenda, a film released to American audiences three months after September 11, 2001 in a cauldron of simmering patriotism, militarism and paranoia, with troops already deployed in Afghanistan alongside the brimming preparations for Iraq that would come to a boil a year later.

Most pressing to “Ali”’s difficulty and distinction is its form. Its beats eschew a lot of the standard biopic notes showcased in films such as “A Beautiful Mind” or “Ray”, moving to its own stubborn and beautiful rhythm—floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, and—perhaps too much—rope-a-doping its way to the "Rumble in the Jungle" climax. Photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, “Ali” was Mann’s first flirtation with HD video (used in a handful of brief nocturnal sequences, including the opening shot of Ali running down a Louisville street), soon later used in his short-lived television series “Robbery Homicide Division” (2002) and then fully to gorgeous—and controversially divisive—effect in “Collateral” (2004) and “Miami Vice” (2006). Throughout, Lubezki’s camera is often hand-held in startling close-ups and unexpected coverage angles.

Rather than having recognizable supporting players like Jeffrey Wright (as photographer Howard Bingham), Ron Silver (as trainer Angelo Dundee), Paul Rodriguez (as boxing physician Bernie Pacheco), Joe Morton (as lawyer Chauncey Estridge) and Mykelti Williamson (as promoter Don King) give their real-life counterparts spotlight moments of revelatory dialogue and defining characterization, they’re flattened and wound as finely engineered brushstrokes winding around the enigmatic center. In place of conventional brassy period movie-music cues, there’s beatific sample-laden electronica and contemporary Afro-Pop.

“Ali” is driven by mood and dreamlike elevations above period biography and drama. The entire opening half-hour—a loose assemblage of Sam Cooke’s Harlem Square Club performance, Ali’s perspectives as a child and his training as an adult, brief introductions to his entourage and culminating with the 1964 match with Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) where Ali won the Heavyweight title—has a singular expressive quality pairing the semiotics of physicality with photography that is not the stuff of a Hollywood Oscar contender; it’s ecstatic American transcendentalist cinema on the same tier with Terrence Malick’s most memorable work.

When the formidable and undefeated Liston sneers at Ali (who, before he wins the title, is still Cassius Clay), “I’ll beat your ass like I was your daddy,” the picture moves by thought association as we see the adolescent Cassius looking at his father paint pictures of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus with John the Baptist. There follows Clay’s own spiritual guidance by way of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), and then a disciple, Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx), a converted Jew who arrives as a messenger from God (dubbed “Shorty” because “he likes’em circumcised, original people, like Moses”). Trainer Angelo Dundee, his eyes moving between Clay and the newspaper, oversees the training, commenting on his jump-roping, “Just like that, daddy, back and forth, sideways, not in the same place, bad for the heart.”

And then completing—and documenting—the circle, there’s Bingham, camera in hand, snapping pictures. The individual, his body and his heart, is being used as semiotic device, communicating something to whole populations in massively broadcast images that change hearts and minds. The concept makes an impression on young Cassius as we see an old man on a bus aggressively shove a newspaper’s front page into the boy’s face: a picture bearing Emmett Till’s gruesome visage after he was murdered for looking a white woman. Mann and Lubezki draw attention to their own cameras as much as they do Bingham’s (note that “Ali” was Mann’s follow-up to 1999’s “The Insider,” about the countenances in mass media information; the two films make a fine pair), and there’s an incredible close-up on Ali’s face as he works on a speed bag, the bag’s movement over his face having the semblance of a flickering camera shutter. Ali’s training here extends beyond boxing, and his body is a tool of immense communicative power, an athlete whose punches reflect an approach to social justice. Ali porously becomes Ali, a transgressive figure infiltrating the entertainment industrial complex.

The film floats in tune with Ali’s body, as this whole opening is guided by spiritual feeling, the stuff of Sam Cooke (played here by David Elliott, who, like a prelude to Will Smith’s performance—and why I think Mann introduces him first in the movie—does an excellent job of singing Sam Cooke without imitating him) attributing “soul” not to just a genre of popular music but deeper in time to black spirituals and transcendent longing: “Don’t fight the feeling, gotta feel the feeling!” Cooke sings as Cassius Clay works out on the streets and at the gym, the soul’s elevation an electrifying marriage between mind and body as Ali’s curriculum of self-knowledge and physical conditioning becomes 10 minutes of gloriously suspended movie frisson. Clay steps onto this grand stage to face the Goliath Liston, the lights above the ring photographed like a surreal geometric grid, the camera moving with the sparring bodies in the ring, flashing bulbs and Howard Cosell’s color commentary covering the action. Clay’s mercurial giftedness eventually overtakes his rival, the picture exploding in a shot-edit dance, the soft bed of Moby swiftly lunging into Dungeon East and Whild Peach’s exuberantly percussive “Set Me Free,” Mann and Lubezki mixing their standard 35mm film coverage with miniature, then-state-of-the-art video cameras capturing capturing abrasive close-ups of pummeling gloves. Butterfly and bee, Cassius Clay is flying. Mann's mantra while production and staging the boxing scenes was “Choreography is story.”

Cassius Clay becomes the champ and, as with his victorious song, is set free in his mythical transformation as Muhammad Ali, in name unshackled from his ancestors’ slave names. As follows the temporal suspension of rapture, he, like the film, comes down to earth. The body slows down and ameliorates, watching TV and making love, settling into the flow of life and vulnerable to its treachery and abuse. Ali restfully watches a documentary about termites while an aggrieved Malcolm X arrives and speaks about his exile from the Nation of Islam following a decision to collaborate with the Civil Rights movement in response to the Birmingham church bombing. Trying to control variables of Civil Rights and inner city black militancy, the FBI makes moves to keep the new champion under its imperious surveillance, while at the same time the CIA fights the Cold War by overthrowing regimes and setting up despotic dictators such as Mobutu (Malick Bowens) in Zaire (Mann casts his great stock company players Ted Levine and Bruce McGill as the respective malevolent countenances of the corrupt and amoral status quo). Ali falls in love with the sensuous escort Sonji Roy (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose secular sensibilities detrimentally conflict with his Islamic and political principles. And, most significantly, Ali decisively defies the draft board, resulting in his title and boxing privileges (and so his livelihood) being stripped.

Social injustice, assassinations and nefarious geopolitics bind in the film with the struggles of multiple marriages and strained friendships (such as with Bundini, whose fallen from his prophet poetry to drug addiction and selling Ali’s belt); we’re in the slog of history, the sedentatious atrophy brought on by a cycle of oppression.

It’s here, taking the punches, where “Ali” leans on the ropes and only intermittently recaptures the wind of that incredible first half hour. Repeat viewings have somewhat lessened this for me, but a sense of unevenness comes through as Mann’s musical jukebox of R&B source music, cued up with successive indignant blows and arguments with Ali’s second wife Belinda (Nona Gaye), starts to become repetitive. But the film never loses sight of the significance of Ali’s command of the media, particularly in scenes between Ali and Cosell, the old “strange looking white man” who becomes the boxer’s on-air verbal sparring partner and off-screen confidante.

Despite his Oscar nomination as Best Actor for "Ali," Will Smith has never really been given due credit for how good he is here; I never feel like I’m watching the movie star “Will Smith” in “Ali,” or the real life Muhammad Ali, so much as I’m watching a compelling film character by that name, a man who’s already an actor on a world stage. This is a master of verbal and physical communication, playing strategic angles in corrupt paradigms, like joining forces with Don King and Mobutu to get the Rumble in the Jungle going. In this sense Ali is a classic Mann character in line with his police detectives and master thieves from his genre work, or the frontiersman Hawkeye from “Last of the Mohicans,” or maverick journalist Lowell Bergman in “The Insider.” He’s playing “Br’er Rabbit” with the system, infiltrating a dangerous white-dominated superstructure of information that extends from boxing rings to political coups in Africa.

That’s the staggering realization Ali has in Zaire when preparing for his match with the indestructible George Foreman (Charles Shufford). As with “The Insider”—which began by looking at Hezbollah in Beirut, then somehow ended up in a Louisville tobacco company before taking us into CBS’ New York offices, only to end outside the Unabomber’s backwoods cabin—Mann conveys the interconnectivity of a world on a wire. The Africans who run with Ali as he prepares don’t have access to the water he drinks, the steaks he eats and the communicative devices on which his body’s transmitted. But the locals’ wall murals have him there, an image transcending earthbound obstructions, his painted boxing gloves outmatching their day-to-day perils of disease-carrying insects and military arsenals. Muhammad Ali sees and recognizes himself as mythical representative, “Muhammad Ali,” the weight of his significance, appropriated by poor people thousands of miles away from his home. It’s a parallel transcendence that we saw in the first part of the film, but not as the exhilaration of “feeling” (remembering Sam Cooke) but as an epiphany. Mann’s camera immerses itself in the space and matter of these provincial environs and faces, while the mural implies the expansive, unseen conflict between men and armies hidden beneath the countenance of Mann’s intimate epic of close-ups.

Again, it’s as if the unusual approach of Mann, perhaps emulating his core influence of Dziga Vertov and “Man with a Movie Camera,” were to meld the phenomena caught in the viewfinder with the emotion and abstractions of the moment, body and mind in rapport, such as Mann and Lubezki do earlier as Ali slow dances with Sonji in a club to “For Your Precious Love,” the camera curiously arcing down and lingering on the hips of the singer (Shari Watson), the artist’s body a mirror to the music and a corporeal embodiment of the sexual arousal of two out-of-frame main characters.

“Ali” is both a boxing film and a film about films, churned out in a mechanical apparatus. Ali’s introduction to us via video, with its startling contrast and resolution of nocturnal backgrounds surrounding the hero (the clouds and moon as Ali works out, and faraway but vibrant traffic as Ali and Sonji make love) indicates the multiplicity of life, its diverse however binding perspectives manifesting in 35mm, live television transmission, government surveillance, radio broadcast, countless photos and then, most significantly, murals.

Ali eludes capture, save for the transmigration to a mythic image. He looks up at it, realizing he has no choice but to beat Foreman. Years after Liston, his body and mind are no longer in perfect rapport, as some muffled voice-over narration mid-fight has Ali talking to his legs that won’t move back soon enough, and then after a Foreman punch to the head, the voice inside has to coax his body out of “the green room.” The peripheral sight of an older man holding a green radio is an associative reminder of those murals, and Ali succeeds in the formidable task of his disciplined mind resurrecting the failing body. He wins, and Mann freeze-frames the hero.

“God don’t care about you, about me. We be. And that’s the onliest thing He did,” says a drug-addled and desperate Bundini. That sage passage within the purported shaman Bundini’s intoxication is a diagnosis for the characters in the world of “Ali,” and perhaps Mann’s methodology in handling the actors playing them. Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright and Joe Morton, among others, are all performers who are unfairly sidelined in an over-crammed history play (LeVar Burton, as Martin Luther King Jr., is on screen for seconds—on a background television set shaking hands with Malcolm X, and then dying from an assassin’s bullet). But watch them. They’re all still acting, and all are superb as they fill in the tinier blood vessels of this immense body. (Silver’s Dundee attentively placing medical ringside materials into his pockets, each individual thing in its right place, is a miniature masterpiece of a character, camera and cutting coordinating together.) There’s something bigger than individuals here, even for the Great Individualist who’s “going to be the champ the way he wants to be.”

Mann didn’t show us, though he knew we were well aware, of what would happen to this body holding a brilliant mind at the center of “Ali,” the neurologic condition of Parkinson’s breaking off its beautiful consonance with the soul. This now makes the film’s fight scenes as poignant as they are dazzling. The disembodied nature of communications in social media and texting and the exhaustiveness of a 24-hour news cycle, makes the existence of Muhammad Ali all the more extraordinary. His hacker-like infiltration of the system in the interests of freedom of thought and social justice are now overshadowed by similar “great communicators” using the wired world to multiply their ego and power. Because of such people in our cyber-political sphere who are televised without end, Muhammad Ali will remain important as a person, and “Ali” should too be heralded as an important film. 

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