What's My Name: Muhammad Ali (HBO, premieres May 14, 8 p.m. ET)
Elvis. The Beatles. Ali. That's the trio, the trinity, of pop-culture figures who transcend the vehicles that made them famous, whose pervasive fame was a by-product of the awesome culture they created. Presley, the Fab Four and Muhammad Ali remain uncontested for their outreach and influence, for the adoration they inspired, and if I list Ali third, it's only because of chronology.
Ali, who died at 74 in 2016, remains endlessly fascinating, and a new, two-part HBO documentary, What's My Name: Muhammad Ali, comes as close as any film yet made to capturing that vast complexity of the man. Director Antoine Fuqua, 53, best known for his fine 2001 Denzel Washington film Training Day, has assembled footage of Ali's fights and interviews in a way that tells the boxer's story with no need for voiceover narration — in effect, Ali tells the story in his own words.
Early on, we get to admire the way the young man — then known by his Christian name, Cassius Clay — was able to carry his dashing handsomeness into the boxing ring, a place where attractiveness had previously been something fleeting and rare. Never burly, but fitfully glowering, Clay was a superb athlete who carried his Olympics gold-medal success into professional boxing. Nimble and, by his own term, “pretty,” he brought a rare grace to the sport and steadily revealed something else: a verbal facility that matched his physical gifts, something so unusual in sports, it remains startling to see old interviews in which this youth can explain his strategy and toss out jokes with meticulous detail and wit.
"I'm different; I'm something new on the scene,” says Clay in What's My Name. He was, from the start, fully aware of his own distinctiveness.
Once he converted to Islam in the early 1960s and took the name Muhammad Ali, the boxer found a philosophical framework for the racism he experienced and observed around him. Can younger viewers of What's My Name fully understand how unusual it was to hear a celebrity athlete speak out about racial injustice? I'm not sure. I remember arguments with my father, who insisted on calling Ali “Cassius Clay” for years — a then-standard white insult. My dad was disgusted that Ali refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War in 1966, even as I and my pals were thrilled that here was one antiwar activist who could also knock out any man he faced.
Fuqua found a TV interview clip from the 1970s in which Ali scoffs at the notion of brain damage due to boxing; it serves as a grimly ironic entrée to the 1984 Parkinson's syndrome diagnosis that, along with respiratory illnesses and septic shock, would lead to his death. But What's My Name emphasizes Ali at his most alive and entertaining, establishing the way Ali's boasting was a form of self-justification, a garrulous way of creating a completely original sort of fame. Robbed of three crucial years of fighting at the end of the 1960s because of a conviction for draft evasion later overturned by the Supreme Court, Ali battled back — in the ring, and in the court of public opinion. He regained his heavyweight championship title and became a globally adored, if still outspoken and controversial, figure.
Like other great culture figures, Ali has inspired reams of pop detritus, including The Greatest, a 1977 biopic in which Ali played himself, opposite Ernest Borgnine as trainer Angelo Dundee and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X. As art, it was wanting; as junk spectacle, it was hilarious. More seriously, there are a number of excellent Ali documentaries, foremost among them director Leon Gast's extraordinary When We Were Kings, the 1996 film about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali's 1974 triumph in Zaire over George Foreman, that went as deep into racial politics as it did into the sport of boxing. Fuqua's What's My Name now joins it as a superb work that grapples bravely with the endless meanings of Muhammad Ali.