Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali gave a voice to all the downtrodden black Americans who couldn't speak - much less shout - for themselves. His fists expressed their anger and his own: anger for being kept at the back of the bus, for the lynchings, for the dead children, for years of praying to a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus.
In director Michael Mann's biopic of Muhammad Ali, Will Smith inhabits the champ from the first curl of his lip and half-lidded gaze. Mann presents an unvarnished portrait of Ali, complete with his womanising and his vanity. This engrossing and artistic film follows Cassius Clay Jr. through his conversion to Islam, rejection of the "slave name" he was given at birth, loss of confidante Malcolm X, refusal to be drafted in the Vietnam War and throughout, his struggle to remain the world champion.
It's really a mood piece, with an outstanding soundtrack cueing us to the meaning of each scene as much as any other narrative device. Mann trusts the audience to be patient through long montages with no dialogue and no explanation of Ali's thoughts or the conspiracies and betrayals that seem to surround him.
This gives us the freedom to come up with our own interpretations. The scenes almost lull us into thinking Ali was a simple philosopher, until we're brought back to reality when he trash talks his opponent or boasts to the press.
"That boy even dream he whupped me, he'd better wake up and apologize," Ali says about Joe Frazer (James Toney), who became heavyweight champion when Ali's refusal to join the Army got him banned from boxing. Ali understood the cult of personality early on, and strove to be the people's champ.
The people responded with love. One of the most moving scenes in the film shows Ali running through the poverty-ridden streets of Kinshasa, Zaire, training for a fight with George Foreman that's his last shot at the title. He's quickly surrounded by children and adults, running alongside him shouting in support. In Smith's expressive face, we can see the experience transform the champion into a legend.
While Ali's life makes great dramatic material, the filmmakers must edit ferociously to craft a coherent narrative. They largely succeed, bringing to life Ali's humorous and warm relationship with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight at his best), and trying to understand his string of failed marriages. But the broad scope can also be confusing: the members of Ali's family and entourage blur together. Hints at a plot against Ali are never fleshed out, to the viewer's frustration.
The fight scenes are as evocative as any other montage in the movie, giving us a sense of awe for Ali's athleticism. Smith's face subtly lets us know the moment he conquers fear and gains the upper hand over his opponent.
When the movie condescends to use dialogue, we're rewarded with Ali's quick wit and trademark one-liners. Together, Mann and Smith draw you into the struggle of a man whose life was like his boxing: independent, fierce and relentless.