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.