By: Danny Serratelli
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There have been a number of memorable films made about living legend Muhammad Ali over the years. When you are “The Greatest” this is to be expected. When you accomplish so much in your life, inspire so many, refuse to ever give up, always fight for what you believe in and you are loud, unique, charismatic and pretty the whole time, you leave several lifetimes of content for filmmakers to focus on and explore. The newest film, “I am Ali” which opened on Friday October 10th, did a good job of distinguishing itself from its predecessors.
As another well-known gentleman and former Heavyweight Champion of the World said in the film when referring to the very full and meaningful life Ali has lead, “Boxing was just something he did.” George Foreman, now 65 years old, speaks of Ali, who is now 72 with great admiration. Their lives have been linked together ever since a 32-year old Ali pulled off one of his many miracles when he knocked out the 25-year old Foreman in the 8th round of “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, Africa back in 1974.
There have been a number of films made about the greatest, including, “Ali The Fighter”(1971), “The Greatest” (1977), “When We Were Kings” (1996), “Ali” (2001) and “Facing Ali”(2009) among others. The most recent film is a documentary, much like many of the aforementioned films, however, unlike most of the other films in which a current Ali of the time was the star of the film, this time close friends, family and some boxing luminaries pay tribute to Ali and the director paints a picture using colors and brush strokes that many people haven’t seen before. In fact, by design, the present Ali does not appear in the film and will not see the film until it was completed and released.
While Ali is not remembered only as an athlete and is probably one of the most recognizable and beloved individuals in the world today, films about great athletes, particularly documentaries are often assumed to be geared towards sports fans, boxing fans and more of a male audience.
This film, which was directed by British documentarian , Clare Lewins, a British woman is interesting because Lewins was not a sports fan or a boxing fan. While it wasn’t my favorite film about Ali, it was clear to me before I had any idea who the director was that the film possessed a feminine touch and the fact that she was not a boxing person or a sports person (and didn’t try to be) made the film more unique.
The idea for the film came about when Gene Kilroy suggested that Lewins come to Ali’s 70th birthday and film it. Lewins became friends with Ali’s long time businesses manager and friend (Kilroy), after she made a show about Ali a few years back on BBC. She had also interviewed Ali’s longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee for BBC.
After Kilroy’s request, she replied, “Well I could do it, but I’d like to make a really good film about him just to find out why he’s so special.” After gaining the trust of Ali’s family and inner circle, Lewins, who to this day is not shy about the fact that she was never a sports fan wanted to understand what made, “the Greatest” so special and to let anyone who wasn’t aware also understand through her film.
She came up with this intimate look at Ali, behind the scenes. She gained unprecedented access to Ali’s personal archive of audio journals which contained touching interviews and testimonials from his real friends and family, and she found her direction. The film contains many private recordings between Ali and his daughters when they were young children, ex-wife and others like Mike Tyson, and Jim Brown.
Rather than focusing on Ali, the fighter, or the civil rights activist, she focuses this film on Ali, the father, the brother, the friend, the husband, the man… the legend. Lewins intention with this film is to let viewers feel his presence which he opens it up saying, “This is Muhammad Ali on November 19th.” And he ends the film saying, “If anybody wonders why I’m making these tapes, it’s because life is so beautiful.”