Last week I spent four and a half hours on the BBC World Service's Newshour programme, adding commentary to Muhammad Ali's memorial service, which they were broadcasting live from Louisville. While I was going through my thoughts, some of which I'd posted here, or written for Newstalk.com and the London Review of Books LRB Blog, I remembered reviewing the aptly-named Muhammad Ali Through The Eyes Of The World, for the Daily Telegraph back in November 2001, when the film aired on ITV after a debut at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival; I was writing quite a bit for them on documentary film at that point. Grabsky's film was trying to do the same thing we were trying to do 15 years later, provide elements of context for this great man's life, so I dug up my original draft of the article, which is slightly different from what appeared in the Telegraph on 10 November; it had been cut a bit for space. I found it moving that I'd concluding with Ali's message of peace--it took only two days after his memorial for America to taste murderous hatred again. And I was pleased that although Grabsky did indeed set a high bar, in the wake of Ali's death, there was a great deal of surpassing that bar. But here's what I wrote in 2001...
“I shook up the world,” yelled Cassius Clay on February 25, 1964, after beating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. “The world changed,” agrees a new documentary, Muhammad Ali: Through The Eyes Of The World.
Ali has already been analysed by heavyweight authors. On film, William Klein’s Muhammad Ali: The Greatest was made in 1974; Leon Gast's exceptional smash hit When We Were Kings, about the Rumble In The Jungle, followed two decades later 1996. Will Smith will impersonate Ali soon in a feature film directed by Michael Mann. With the turn of the millennium, Ali has been acknowledged as the past century’s greatest sportsman. So do we really need another documentary?
“I asked myself the same question,” says ThroughThe Eyes Of The World's director, Phil Grabsky. “What could I add to the canon? I felt what didn’t exist was a film made for people who weren’t boxing fans, and I thought we could add something for those who didn’t necessarily remember the era.” Judging by the response of audiences when the film opened the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, where extra showings had to be laid on, the answer is emphatically yes.
Grabsky’s film is built from interviews. Celebrities are a selling point, of course, yet far from stealing the spotlight, stars get transformed into fans when faced with idea of Ali. Richard Harris refused to talk about the Burtons or Oliviers he’s worked with, says Grabsky. “He said ‘that’s just tossers talking about tossers, but I want to talk about Ali, because he’s really significant.'
“I was fascinated when highly successful people made grandiloquent claims for a guy who, in his own words, ‘beat people up for a living’, Grabsky explains. “Big stars tend to isolate themselves from their communities. Today how many of them would dare support political ideas like Ali did?”
The film speaks eloquently the American apartheid from which Clay emerged, and of his stand against the Vietnam war, but inevitably the boxing footage steals the show. And celebrities may be celebrities, but people from the boxing world not only tell the best stories, but prove the most adept at supplying the wider context. When contrarian author Mark Kram claims Clay ‘didn’t change a thing’, Ring Magazine’s Burt Sugar explains exactly what Ali sacrificed when he gave up his title by refusing to be drafted, and younger boxer Howard Davis explains what that meant to those who followed him into the ring. When critic Stanley Couch characterises Ali’s embrace of ‘a gaggle of lunatics’, the Black Muslims, as ‘insane’, sports writer Dick Schaap says he believes ‘only half-kidding’ that Ali was so malleable he, Schaap, probably could’ve converted Ali to Judaism had he tried. Another sports writer, Jerry Izenberg speaks movingly of how with him Ali transcended the ‘white devil’ message of the Nation of Islam.
Grabsky is balanced and exposes bits of Ali’s dark side, his womanising and his capacity for viciousness in the ring (as when Ernie Terrell refused to call him ‘Ali’). But what stands out is the way he uses boxing footage not only to portray the beauty of the fighter in his prime, but also to show the conscious strategy, the intelligence that lay behind Ali’s seemingly natural ability. Yet this footage has its own dark side, as we see Ali’s incredible ability to absorb a punch, popping back up after killer blows from Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper, the punishment he took long before 'rope a dope'.
Today, the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee is bloated by Parkinson’s Disease, his spark as lively as ever but his ability to speak almost gone. Grabsky reveals that towards the end of his career, Ali fought while taking thyroid medicine which robbed him of the very last shreds of his ability. Yet Ali regrets nothing. One friend speaks for the audience: “he doesn’t regret it, I don’t know why I do.”
For Ali always came back. Izenberg reminds us that when he won his draft case in the US Supreme Court, the ultimate ‘beat the man’ verdict; the stand which had made him a hero to the young, now made him the idol of ‘the limo crowd’. Did he really change the world? Like the JFK assassination, or the Beatles’ invasion of America (and don't forget the Fab Four made a pilgrimage to Ali’s camp before the first Liston fight) Ali helped usher in the Sixties; but forty years later he still makes a difference. Were there any doubt about his importance, you could see the man Presidents beg for autographs visiting the World Trade Towers, living his role as America’s leading Moslem, standing up for peace.
Is there still more to say about Muhammad Ali? Grabsky convinces us that there is. But this film has set the bar just a little bit higher for the next one.