Why you should care

The famous boxer’s story has been told many times. However, this film — with its personal, poignant narrative — is must-see Ali. 

The story of Muhammad Ali has been well documented in various mediums. So, when a new documentary on the boxing legend was announced, the question loomed: How could his story be told any differently?

The answer comes in the form of I Am Ali, directed by Clare Lewins, who is known for her award-winning films about cultural icons like Che Guevara and Mick Jagger. It’s a well-paced film that weaves together archival Ali footage with intimately shot conversations, and it offers a different perspective on the man once known as Cassius Clay, neither treading ground covered by other documentaries nor telling another “greatest boxer of all time” story.

Sir Tom Jones offers a tale about playfully knocking down the champ, and Mike Tyson recounts his first meeting with Ali as a child.

Instead, I Am Ali delivers refreshing insight on the boxer as a father, brother and friend. The narrative is told primarily through the personal archive of phone recordings that Ali saved for his children. Commentary from his manager, brother and others — including his greatest rival’s son — provides an intimate complement.

Of course, certain events cannot be avoided, like Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman. But getting Foreman’s lighthearted perspective breathes new life into the narrative. The same can be said for Ali’s rivalry with Joe Frazier. Hearing from Frazier’s son Marvis about their meeting, days before Smokin’ Joe’s death, opens a new window into their storied conflict.

african american former heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali lies on couch with two children

Muhammad Ali with his daughters

There was simply never enough Ali to go around. Just enough to keep everyone satisfied.

There are also some rarely told tales. Like the making of the memorable Esquire cover — the one that mimics “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.” Rather than simply recounting its creation, photographer Carl Fischer and art director George Lois deliver personal anecdotes, some amusing, about their friendship with Ali. Sir Tom Jones offers a tale about playfully knocking down the champ, and Mike Tyson recounts his first meeting with Ali as a child.

But his daughters, ex-wife and brother — who know Ali better than just about anyone else — tell the best stories of the lot. We learn that although Ali wasn’t the perfect husband, he sought to be as kindhearted as possible to his loved ones. And there was simply never enough Ali to go around. Just enough to keep everyone satisfied.

The audio recordings mostly feature Ali speaking with his 4-year-old daughter Maryum. His transition from superstar to “Daddy” is poignant: Here he’s not fighting for the world title or battling with the U.S. government about Vietnam, but just a man who is a sucker for his kids trying to give them lessons to carry. Through the recordings, we realize that the voice of the man who went from public enemy to beloved athlete will never be heard like this again.

It’s rare today to see anybody with a fraction of the charisma, natural ability and affection for people as Muhammad Ali. I Am Ali is a reminder of what greatness truly is … and it isn’t confined to a boxing ring.

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