“City of Ali” – Not just the derby [MOVIE REVIEW]
“City of Ali” directed by Graham Shelby takes us on an exploration of Muhammad Ali’s home town of Louisville and its significance in his vast history. Recognizing that so much of Ali’s life has been already told, the director and his team have attempted to carve out new territory in a field that has already been covered thoroughly and, in many cases, brilliantly. Foremost among a large filmography about his career is the Oscar winning “Once Were Kings” (1996), the Emmy winning “What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali” (2019), as well as the excellent ”Thrilla in Manilla” (2008), “AKA Cassius Clay” (1970), “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” (2013) and the biographical film “Ali” (2001) starring Will Smith. Muhammad Ali has been a never-ending source of material.
By focusing on the symbiotic relationship between Louisville and its most famous citizen, Shelby found a new, somewhat untapped perspective. From interviews with former neighbors we learn that he came from a middle class environment with very good schools, albeit in a thoroughly segregated city. His pathway to future fame was set by a white policeman he encountered when, at age 10, he reported that his brand new red Schwinn bike had been stolen. As young Cassius told the policeman, he wanted to catch that guy and beat him up. “Do you know how to fight?” asked the policeman. “No,” was the response. So off the policeman took him to a gym to learn to box; and the rest is history, or at least it would be in about 8 years’ time when he won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics.
Segregated Louisville greeted their native son with jubilation, but within limits. In later years a now-famous Ali, guesting on the Dick Cavett show, recounted this anecdote about what happened when he entered a local restaurant. “We don’t serve negroes,” said the waitress. Responded Ali, “I don’t eat them either. Just give me a couple of hamburgers.”
The primary focus of this film is the memorial in 2016 held in Louisville upon his death. This event was 8 years in the planning and had the full participation of the champ himself. He and his family, working with city fathers and especially the mayor, wanted a celebration of his life. He may have been a major player on the international stage but he always remained a son of Louisville, a son who tried to hold that city accountable for past ills and celebrated for its forward motion.
As this documentary makes clear, Muhammad Ali was self-assured from an early age. He knew who he was and where he was going. “I am the greatest” was always part of his mantra, a philosophy that he believed long before James Brown came up with “Say it loud. I’m black and I’m proud.” He wanted to be an example and inspiration to others.
There were many who helped him along the way and he acknowledged that assistance. After his win at the Olympics brought him attention and fame, a consortium of Louisville businessmen banded together to sponsor him. As recounted, they had two motivations, first to protect him from the influence of organized crime in boxing; and second (order them however you like) to make money. They saw a good thing and came through. There was no hint of criminal influence on Ali like there was on Sonny Liston and those businessmen made money hand over fist (and so did Ali).
His conversion to Islam is glossed over with one mention of the influence of Elijah Muhammad and ignored completely is Ali’s abandonment of Malcolm X at the time of his assassination. Significantly, Ali later moved away from Elijah Muhammed and was publicly contrite over his disavowal of Malcolm X; this too was not mentioned.
Ali was a man who stood by his convictions regardless of the personal toll. Citing his religious beliefs, he refused to be drafted into the army. He declared, “You want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me at home.” He spent 4 years appealing the criminal conviction won by the government, a conviction that denied him the right to fight at the height of his prowess. As a sports writer and friend pointed out, Ali’s life was lived by speaking his mind and standing by the consequences.
Felled by Parkinson’s disease in his later years, he continued as a citizen of the world and a special booster of his hometown, always working to make it what he thought it could be. When bigger cities vied for the Muhammad Ali Center, something akin to a presidential library, he wanted it built in Louisville. He remembered his roots and returned many times for local fundraisers invoking a quote he had heard many times, “ Service is the rent you pay here for your room in heaven.” Louisville was his hometown and he wanted the Center built in the town that believed in him. Louisville, Ali felt, was part of his success and his personality.
When, in 2016, he died, the family and memorial committee hurried to finish the planning for this celebration of his life. It would be held in a stadium in order to accommodate the vast numbers who wanted to attend. ESPN spent 9 hours covering the tribute and funeral. Over a billion people worldwide watched the broadcast of this memorial.
There is no new historical information presented but by putting Ali in the context of what he changed and what he stood for, the filmmakers have staked out new territory. The eulogies alone are worth the price of admission and interviews with family members, close friends, and associates add even more to his story.
So thank you Muhammad Ali for what you’ve added to all our lives, and a special thank you to the kid, whoever he was, who stole that red bike.
Opening June 4 on Home Cinema Release.
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