I Am Ali

Claire Lewins uses exclusive audio journals to tell at least part of the legendary boxer's life story

If Muhammad Ali had commissioned a documentary to chronicle his momentous career and tempestuous life, it would be unlikely to resemble Claire Lewins’s I Am Ali.

Elegantly constructed, this study of an icon lacks the bombastic, self-serving braggadocio of the erstwhile Cassius Clay. Whatever its tone, however, there is little herein to which the three-time heavyweight world champion could rightly object.

That this is a paean to Ali becomes obvious from the beginning, its fluffy narrative underscored with intimate audio recordings and affecting testimonials. Equally, one should expect nothing more profound: no nod to the greyer parts of the near messiah presented; no suggestion that Ali possesses flaws deeper than a sprinkling of small imperfections, barely acknowledged.

In truth Lewins’s film, which plays at the Brunswick Moviebowl in Derry~Londonderry at 6pm on November 21 as part of the 2014 Foyle Film Festival, represents only a comprehensive introduction to an admittedly fascinating figure.

For a generation unfamiliar with Ali’s greatness – and he was just that, great – I Am Ali will serve as a reminder that heavyweight boxing was once a dazzling spectacle and its mighty pugilists genuine sporting titans.

If there is a single element that stands out then it is the humanity of Ali’s role as friend, husband, son, father and sibling. Snatches of home footage round him out as warm and witty; audio of telephone conversations with his many children illustrate a commitment to their betterment in every respect.

In discussing their simple Kentucky childhood, Rahman Ali appears, even at the grand age of 71, genuinely awestruck by the man he calls brother, and it is an air that carries through the lengthy first-hand accounts compiled by Lewins.

Ali infused all aspects of life with an unprecedented level of preening verve, the lines between self-serving circus act and truthful sincerity feeling blurred the more his private existence is contrasted with the image that he built for himself.

While the man’s prowess in the ring was obvious, this is not really a film about boxing. Lewins does not shy away from the topic, of course, tracing the major landmarks in Ali’s rise from Olympic gold medallist – a wonderfully down-home television interview at the 1960 tournament in Rome displays the kind of manners Mother Clay was undoubtedly keen on promoting – to strident superstar.

If Ali’s ability to back up his world-class promotional skills with genuine, almost haunting talent seems like an especially rare commodity, then the integrity that he preached during the fevered era of Vietnam and Civil Rights is also wholly worthy of the praise Lewins chooses to heap on with minimal subtlety.

Speaking out against racial inequality and refusing to ‘drop bombs and bullets on other brown people’ for the army in Vietnam, Ali’s powerful presence pushed these issues to the fore. He is depicted in this context not as a crusader but as a principled American, a false distinction, perhaps, in a tumultuous age.

It is around these themes, unfortunately, that the director fails to deliver something harder hitting. The full gravity of that decision to reject his draft status earns nothing more than a passing mention. Ali's complex and controversial relationship with the Nation of Islam – Malcolm X makes only a cameo appearance – is scrubbed from view.

Furthermore, in spite of Ali’s status as a doting father, the extent of his philandering – the hypocrisy of proclaiming Islam’s tenets while engaging in myriad infidelities – is largely whitewashed. Lewins's work feels like an admiring portrait on his behalf, free of all the things he would rather forget.

That which plays out instead is a somewhat disjointed chronology of dates and people, each offering up their own insights on an individual of no little complexity. None of these contributions are uninteresting but nothing negative slips through to balance out the tales of attending dying children or hosting fans at his mansion in Los Angeles. Nobody is perfect, not even Muhammad Ali.

As the powerful images of the Rumble in the Jungle flicker across the screen – Ali gracefully pulling back from pummelling an already poleaxed George Foreman – the last impression is that the former may always symbolise another time, another place. Clearly, given his current state of Parkinson’s-induced ill health, the subject’s absence here is inevitable, yet the enduring question that arises from I Am Ali, as with so many documentaries made about him, is: who is Ali?

I Am Ali screens at the Brunswick Moviebowl, Derry~Londonderry on November 21, as part of the Foyle Film Festival.