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Director Michael Mann opens up about Muhammad Ali

The celebrated director talks about Ali out of the ring and behind the scenes


Perhaps now more so than ever, Muhammad Ali’s life story needs to be examined. In Michael Mann’s 2001 film Ali, Will Smith transformed himself into the heavyweight champion. Taking on his unique characteristics and nailing them perfectly, Smith was honored with an Academy Award nomination. Much of the film takes place during a 10-year period of the prizefighter’s life, focusing on his rise to consciousness and developing a voice as powerful as his punches. Mann was tasked with the almost impossible: to write and direct a film that somehow brought to life one of the most praised and polarizing subjects of the last century. On what would have been Ali’s 75th birthday — after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, the fighter died last June — a new Blu-ray disc featuring never before seen behind-the-scenes footage of Ali was released (and the film itself has been massaged). We chat with Mann.

What surprised you most about making this film on Muhammad Ali’s life?

The impact of Africa. There were huge challenges in doing this. It’s a gigantic figure, but it’s also elusive. And it was important to me that the film not be idolatry. He’s proud of his perspective. He’s like, human beings are the full thing, everything included, mistakes and all. The world as he experienced it in the ’60s. We’re the same age, so … it was very political, [and] the politics of it … I was familiar with. I said [to myself] … you don’t want to screw this up. We achieved what we tried to do. Being in Africa was extraordinary. And it’s about Ali because when he went to Accra in ’64 … it was a stunning place. For the first time, he wasn’t the minority, and the world was turned upside down.

We see in a new vignette that Ali was looking at storyboards with you and Will Smith. How involved was Ali in the telling of this story?

He came around a lot. He also came around during editing a lot. He didn’t understand why the 5th St. Gym, for example, had been torn down, I think in the early ’90s. And I recall that we’d location-scouted that in 1985, able to find video and photos. So we were able to rebuild our location not as a set, but just rebuild the 5th St. Gym exactly as it had been. So for Ali to walk into that, I mean, I saw the look on his face when he walked in, and it was like time travel.

He lived his life as a man and he wanted all of that. It diminished who he was to abridge it, to eliminate his mistakes.”

In the new Blu-ray clip, Smith tells Ali he’s going to play Ali better than [Ali] played him. Did Ali think he pulled it off?

Oh, I think he did. They remained close for years. We came to the conclusion that as long as we do the film, we couldn’t use any kind of trickery. Will’s going to have to become a boxer and box. And boxers take punches. He had to be able to take punches. And he did. And so it took him about eight or nine months … extensive training, like four or five hours a day until Will got to a point where we would look at him, and at any moment in time, he was being Ali.

Why did you pick this particular period in time to focus on? It’s not entirely what you would expect from a sports biopic.

I saw it as Ali’s quest for identity. Ali trying to decide who he was going to be. In other words, he knew as the heavyweight champion of the world, and that his presentation was really important … He knew himself as a member of a colonized people in [his] own country … his identity evolved. And by the time you get to the formal fight — the full manifestation of who he is — he is this giant figure. He’s somebody who everybody who’s trying to rise from below identifies with. No matter who they are or where they are. The establishment identifies with George Foreman. That polarization went global. George Foreman was the unwilling — or unintended — victim of that. That’s the significance of the scene when [Smith as Ali] is running and he comes to the murals. Ali can kill sickness. He can knock out tsetse flies. He can knock out tanks and fighter jets. He can knock out George Foreman. He is the symbol of possibility. That adoration and the love is also the fuel that keeps him going. To me, that was the story to tell. And the culmination of it is the Rumble in the Jungle.

Knowing how his story ends — and how he was celebrated and who he was celebrated by — what would you do differently if you were making that film today?

Obviously if you’re a filmmaker, there’s always something else you would have done a little bit differently, but that’s the virtue of digital, you know? We’re able to update for 2017.

I know there were communication challenges because of the Parkinson’s, but what was the best piece of insight he gave you about his life?

There were a couple. Once — I didn’t ask him, he brought it up himself — he said, ‘I don’t want you to sugarcoat it, candy-coat it.’ He lived his life as a man and he wanted all of that. It diminished who he was to abridge it, to eliminate his mistakes. And I said, ‘What’s the biggest mistake you made?’ And he said, ‘Never making up with Malcolm X. Malcolm X was assassinated before we had a chance to.’ He really loved Malcolm X. I said, ‘Listen, would you want to meet Malcolm’s daughter?’ And he said, yeah, he wanted to meet her. She [Attallah Shabazz] looked exactly like Malcolm X — red hair and she just looked like a female Malcolm X. Same smile, everything. They met and they talked for about an hour or two. He told her how much he loved her father.

I saw it as Ali’s quest for identity. Ali trying to decide who he was going to be. In other words, he knew as the heavyweight champion of the world, and that his presentation was really important.”

Ali meant so many things to so many different people. What does Ali mean to you?

I admired his candor. He was who he was. He was comfortable in his own body, he was comfortable in his own skin. There was a harmony to him. He mobilized the best in people. The one thing very relevant to right now is that he lived for values that were outside the circumscribed eye. It wasn’t just how much money can I make, how well can I do for myself and my family, my power, my faith — he lived outside of that. He lived for a value that was external. There’s a scene where someone asks, ‘What about Frazier?’ And Ali says, ‘I’m not worried about Frazier. I’m fighting a bigger foe now. I’m fighting the whole U.S. government.’ He was a complete man. The voice of a champion. He was a smart guy. Normally people who have Parkinson’s and have speech impediments, everybody starts talking about them like they’re stupid. They start baby talking to them. [But] it’s just motor control. They assume stupidity. [And] many Parkinson’s patients fall victim to, ‘If everybody perceives me as becoming simple, then I must be simple.’ But not Ali. Not for a second.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.