I Am Ali is less a film than a mechanism for monetizing an icon’s personal life. Reverse-engineered from exclusive access to the private correspondences of the legendary figure referred to in its title, Clare Lewins’ hagiographic documentary about the life and times of Muhammad Ali takes a wealth of audiotapes that few people have ever heard, and submits them to a movie that most people have seen a thousand times.
I Am Ali begins with original footage of a camera snaking through an anonymous mansion before arriving at a television airing a 1965 episode of “Guess Who,” in which Ali was the mystery guest the contestant was challenged to identify. Lewins is effectively making a promise that her film will locate the true Ali within the legend that has crystallized around him—a legend clouded by the same public media that the boxer so brilliantly used to his advantage. The device is a bit clumsy and transparent, but nevertheless displays a degree of curiosity that the ensuing documentary seldom attempts to muster.
Though Ali’s voice runs through Lewins’ doc like an aimless drip of paint, I Am Ali’s amusingly misleading title serves as a reminder of how far removed the man actually is from the film that allegedly tells his story from the inside out. Padding out the recovered audiotapes, most of which comprise innocuously adorable exchanges between Ali and his then-young daughter, are a series of talking-head testimonials that Lewins refuses to let overlap. Instead, she isolates each of the figures from Ali’s life into their own compact sections—each of them marked with a vainglorious chapter title like “A Trainer’s Story,” “A Journalist’s Story,” “A Daughter’s Story,” etc.—and never allows their memories to interact or contradict. The result is chronological chaos, hopping all over Ali’s timeline after his brother sets the stage with some insight into their shared Louisville childhood. (“In the state of Kentucky, there’s pretty horses and fast women.”)
I Am Ali certainly doesn’t lack access, a fact evident in both the film’s conceit and its roster of interviewees. Lewins has assembled an impressive gallery of Ali’s family, friends, collaborators, and opponents, each of whom has nothing but kind things to say about him. Speaking to Ali’s revolutionary persona, which used the boxing ring as little more than a launching pad, “Rumble in the Jungle” opponent George Foreman graciously concludes, “Boxing was just something Ali did.” Someone else shows up to tell a touching story about Ali’s relationship with a kid who was suffering from terminal cancer, the two of them vowing to each other that they’d win their respective fights. Perhaps the most revealing episode involves the photo shoot for the cover of Esquire’s famous April 1968 issue, in which Ali’s pose re-created “The Martyrdom Of St. Sebastian” in boxing trunks. It’s the rare moment in the film that meaningfully collapses Ali’s pacifism, his religious faith, his role in the American discourse, and his unparalleled command of the culture it spawned.
Unfortunately, the way most of the interviewees wax poetic about Ali’s history and triumphs—or at least the way Lewins has cobbled them together—make him feel less like a person than an event. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a knock against the film, as it represents a perfectly valid perspective through which to consider one of the most famous men of the 20th century. But Lewins’ reductively humanist approach is at odds with how distanced the movie feels from any trace of a real human at its core. The disconnect manifests in a variety of strange places, including in the way so many of the film’s figures refer to Ali in the past tense, though the 72-year-old is still alive. It’s no secret that his health has been in a consistent state of decline since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, but Lewins seems to feel as though extricating Ali from his most relentless foe might provide a better view.
If only Lewins provided anything to see. While I Am Ali is keen to assert Ali’s pivotal role in strengthening blackness in America, it does so out of obligation. The film is far more interested in sharing bite-sized treats from Ali’s audio journals, exploiting an inherent fascination with how an icon could also be a father and a husband. These morsels, which Lewins illustrates with the dull image of an undulating sound wave, are epitomized by an impossibly sweet clip of Ali trying to get one of his daughters to say his famous catchphrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It’s precious stuff, perhaps even priceless for Ali’s legion of fans, but Lewins’ film does little to muster interest for anyone who isn’t particularly interested in the details of how he raised his children, and it does even less to extrapolate anything broader from its detritus of archival material. There are several good documentaries about Muhammad Ali, but while I Am Ali makes a convincing case that it would take several more films about him to comprehensively capture his incredible life, these 111 minutes nevertheless fail to bring us any closer.