“This, uh, no Hollywood set. This is real. Hollywood comes here and takes these kinds of scenes and sets ’em up — have somebody in the movies playing his life. This is real: We don’t pick up a script. We get up in the morning feeling tired, sometimes we feel good, sometimes bad. But we go through it with feelings.”
— Drew Bundini Brown, When We Were Kings
Nobody could play Muhammad Ali but Ali himself. In 1977, Muhammad Ali starred in The Greatest, a biopic based on his own memoir from two years prior. The movie starts with his Olympic win in Cuba and ends with the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, 14 years later. In between, he dates white women, he gives up white women, he befriends Malcolm X, he converts to Islam, he boxes, of course, and so on — you know the story.
And yet, knowing the story only makes the movie stranger. Playing himself, Ali acts out what is in many ways a fiction, or at least such a steep reduction of familiar events that it cannot help but resemble fiction. The movie is precisely structured, dramatically heightened, sentimental as hell. That’s the appeal. It’s an artifact, less memorable for being good (it isn’t) than for how clearly it spells out what the Ali of 1977 wanted the world to understand about Ali. Here is what he wanted us to get, what he tried to teach us in his book and his movie, in every interview and every image: that he was pretty. That he was a man of integrity, if not moral perfection. That he could beat our collective ass — that he would brag about it before, after, and likely during.
Most of all, and let us never downplay it: Muhammad Ali wanted us to know that he was resolutely black. And proud. “Cassius Clay ain’t gonna play nobody’s boy,” says his younger self. The refrain in that movie, uttered at least three times in the first 15 minutes, is “Do you know who I am?” In real life, the refrain may as well have been “You know who I am.” You see who I am. We were reminded, constantly, of the fact of who he was, in not only what he said but how he said it (“I’m so mean I make medicine sick”), in not only the athletic swerves of his body but also the pure, bare-chested fact of it: his Afro, his skin.
He will go down in history as one of the most visible — no, generous — public figures of his or any era. That he’s popularly loved, rather than notorious, is all the more remarkable for an avowed black Muslim who lived through the Malcolm era. Then again, he was irresistible. Here was a man who could charm any camera, any microphone, into loving him, whose command over our imaginations was so pervasive and multifaceted that when he died, we were as eager to dig up videos and images of him talking, walking, doing magic tricks for kids, saving a suicidal man from leaping to his death, and merely being as we were to rewatch footage of him knocking George Foreman and Sonny Liston flat on their asses.
We remain obsessed with his image: We remain obsessed because he gave of himself so freely. Even as the man himself faded from view after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, his image never faded. When Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford released When We Were Kings, a documentary about the weeks leading up to the Ali–Foreman fight in 1974, we were reminded of the man he was. The “When” is poignant. The movie arrived on the heels of Ali’s appearance in Atlanta at the Olympics. We’d watched his body vibrate as he lit the torch and realized, with a shock, that the decline was real. Then we watched the documentary, which was 22 years in the making and depicted Ali as many had continued to imagine and remember him in the interim: the fleet-footed shit-talker of two decades prior, as finely wrought and full of youth as the object of a Keatsian ode, and lethally competitive, to boot. He was quick-witted and spontaneous, sleek, improvisatory, sneakily inventive. The movie is full of jazz and soul — the music, but Ali foremost.
When he won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary the next year, Gast called Ali onstage to share the moment. Without hesitation, everyone in Hollywood rose from their seats, deferring to the the man who was, indisputably, the only star in the room. From the audience, it was impossible not to recognize and be stunned by the implicit through line that ran from the vibrant man in the documentary, who was at his peak, to the man onstage, who, vibrating and silent, had by then been sick with Parkinson’s for over 10 years. And it was impossible not to see triumph in that continuity. The man lighting the torch, the man onstage before Hollywood, was the man we’d seen toughening up to fight Foreman. He was the same man we’d watched on our televisions through the ’60s and ’70s, fighting the nation, fighting to remind us of who he was.
Our bloodied, black St. Sebastian. Whom we’d marveled at, breathlessly, in language, inventing new forms of speech to reckon with his speech, new modes of description to compete with his descriptions of himself. This was that man — and still is. We can never compete with his own ways of representing himself. But it’s thanks to him that we know who he is.