‘I Am Ali’ Review: A Documentary That Feels More Self-Aggrandizing Than Personal
I Am Ali, the latest documentary about legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, decides to take a more personal look at the larger than life athlete. It uses interviews with the boxer’s friends, co-workers and biggest fans in an attempt to separate the man from the legend, thus trying to create an intimate portrait of the champ. And director Clare Lewins somewhat succeeds at humanizing Ali through the use of home videos and private tape recordings, which wonderfully show that in the confines of his own home he was a gentle giant.
Now, Ali is more known for specific events — draft dodging, his famous bouts and motor mouth skills — than for some of his selfless actions. This fact makes a few of the revelations in the interviews eye opening: with legendary opponent George Foreman calling Ali “one of the greatest men to ever appear on the scene of the Earth.” Perhaps the most touching story has Ali taking the time to hang out with a child who was diagnosed with leukemia: famously telling him, “I’m going to beat George Foreman and you’re going to beat cancer.” And afterwards, when the boy became extremely ill, the boxer halted his training camp to drive to Pennsylvania and visit him. Again, it is selfless things like this that makes the audience appreciate the documentary’s perspective.
However, quite early on it becomes clear that Lewins’ attempt to look past the myth ultimately fails: all of the interviewees enable the documentary to buy into the legend, thus only scratching the surface of this fairly complex man. The home movies and recordings perfectly display him as a philosophical prankster, who was a devoted family man and a lot more cultured than one would expect. Yet, the man was far from a saint and it is necessary to observe Ali’s flaws to understand him as an individual — but, in any case, when the subject’s family gets credited as consultants, a neutral documentary becomes fairly unlikely.
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So when Veronica Porsche — Ali’s third wife — breaks down about the champ’s infidelity, the documentary is quick to cut away and does not try to delve deeper: the champ’s unfaithfulness is more humanizing than any of these uplifting stories that have been recounted dozens of times. The audience hears about all of his accomplishments, but never once did the director try to address why Ali was married four times. Basically, this results in the film further blurring the line between the myth and the real person, creating more questions about his character than answers.
In fact, the only difficult situation that the film addresses is the Joe Frazier feud, directly caused by Ali’s trash talking. As many know, Ali said some awful things about Frazier before their first fight — even though the two were longtime friends — and it was decades before Frazier was ever able to forgive him. It is the only time the filmmaker acknowledges that the champ did anything wrong: and even here, it is only given a sliver of screen time in act three.
Ultimately, I Am Ali provides an interesting portrait of the champion solely due to the home videos and the tape recordings. However, besides that the whole movie has a rehashed feel: telling mostly the same positive stories through different perspectives. Basically, its praiseworthy approach does not do anything but boost Muhammad Ali’s already colossal legend: thus further clouding the fine line between sports icon and the real person. Now, particular stories are certainly moving, yet the documentary is far too average to save itself from its monstrous two-hour runtime: making this product at times fascinating, but far from worthwhile.
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