Wednesday 22 November 2017

Film - Muhammad Ali: Too hot for Hollywood

Rumble in the jungle: Muhammad Ali in the documentary When We Were Kings.
Rumble in the jungle: Muhammad Ali in the documentary When We Were Kings.

Paul Whitington

After his death last week, archive footage emerged of Muhammad Ali joshing around with Sylvester Stallone at the 1977 Oscars. A year before, Mr Stallone had become a global superstar overnight thanks to his smash hit directorial début, Rocky, a sentimental boxing saga that proved the highest grossing picture of 1976.

At that point Ali was still world heavyweight champion, and his appearance with Stallone was the sporting equivalent of a papal blessing. But away from the cameras, Ali was sharply critical of Rocky, and Stallone. The film had been inspired by a 1975 bout between Ali and a New Jersey journeyman called Chuck Wepner whose nickname told its own story. But the 'Bayonne Bleeder' had surprised the champ by putting him down in the ninth round (Ali, characteristically, would later claim he'd tripped over Wepner's foot).

Though the fight itself had been most unedifying, Chuck's courage had impressed everyone and most particularly Sly Stallone, who completed the screenplay for Rocky just days after seeing it. Rocky Balboa would be the dogged outsider, and his opponent a swaggering African-American world champ who was obviously modelled to some extent on Ali. But unlike Muhammad, Apollo Creed was not witty, or dangerous, or at odds with America's ruling elite. In fact the 'Master of Disaster' was about as threatening to the status quo as Kermit the Frog. The real champ was not impressed.

"I have been so great in boxing," he later said, "they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky." And while never known for his modest understatement, Ali had a point. Because as popular as he was with ordinary Americans, the champ's colour seemed to be a problem in Hollywood.

As long ago as 1908, African American fighter Jack Johnson had emerged from Texas to win the World Heavyweight Championship and dominate a sport that had previously been the preserve of Irishmen and Italians. Joe Louis, heavyweight champ for 12 years, was considered the greatest of all time, till Ali came along. And since Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in the early 1960s, there's scarcely been a heavyweight champion who isn't black.

But watching Hollywood pictures, you'd never have known it. Because while the boxing sub genre has produced some unforgettable classics over the years, they've almost invariably featured white protagonists. In the great boxing movies of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, actors like John Garfield, Errol Flynn and Kirk Douglas played boxers who triumphed over personal adversity, but were always working class, and white. When black boxers appeared, and they did so rarely, they were faceless, voiceless dupes doomed to lose to the battling white hero.

The classic Hollywood boxing pictures were either life-affirming melodramas like Robert Wise's 1956 film Somebody Up There Likes Me, or gloomy tales of corruption and venality, like the 1962 film Requiem for a Heavyweight. That film starred Anthony Quinn as Luis 'Mountain' Riviera, a punch drunk pugilist who's staggering through the twilight of his career when he's handed a beating by a talented contender.

That young contender was played by one Cassius Clay, a charismatic Olympic gold medallist from Louisville who'd shortly change his name and beat Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. But Ali didn't say much in Requiem for a Heavyweight, and his personality and style were totally at odds with the conventions of the boxing picture.

Even the most heroic movie boxers tended to be dimwits: sometimes bewildered, always inarticulate, and all the more moving as tragic heroes because they never quite realised what was going on. From the moment he swaggered into the limelight, Ali made it abundantly clear that he knew exactly what was going on. In fact, he was middle class America's worst nightmare, a young, handsome, angry black man who wasn't prepared to play the game and behave like some grateful and compliant Uncle Tom.

His arrival in the public consciousness coincided with the rise of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the start of what was effectively a pan-American race war. He'd play his part in it, appearing on countless chat shows to talk in support of black pride, and sacrificing his best years as a fighter by refusing to participate in the Vietnam War.

But while Hollywood might have been ok with mildly controversial racially themed films like The Man Who Came to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, Ali's predominance in boxing during the 1960s and 70s found little cinematic expression. Ali's mouthy, opinionated and geopolitically aware image just didn't match the conventions of the boxing picture, and so instead of dramas inspired by his story and success, we got maudlin, traditionalist boxing pictures like Rocky, and The Champ.

But after Ali returned from the wilderness in the mid-1970s to regain his title and stage epic battles with George Foreman and Joe Frazier, he was just too big to ignore. And in 1977, when directors Tom Gries and Monte Hellman set out to make a film about Ali's life, they decided to cast the man himself.

The Greatest followed Ali's life from the 1960 Olympics to his return as world heavyweight champion in 1974. But it wasn't very good: when asked to act, Ali seemed strangely stilted, his irresistible swagger was undercut by his nerves.

He was a hard man for actual actors to catch too: in 2001, Will Smith played him in Oliver Stone's biopic, Ali. Smith wasn't bad exactly, but he lacked the real Ali's wit, and menace, and Stone's film was a rather limp hagiography.

The real Ali, in all his glorious contradictions, was best captured in two extraordinary documentaries, one of them complimentary, the other not so much. Leon Gast's 1996 film When We Were Kings (see panel) followed the extraordinary spectacle of the 'Rumble in the Jungle', a 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Ali and George Foreman.

Gast's film reminded us all of how funny Ali could be: press interviews turned into impromptu raps, and his in-the-ring impersonations of Foreman reminded one of The Mummy.

But there was a darker side to Ali's banter, that often revolved around his lifelong preoccupation with race. And in John Dower's brilliant 2008 TV documentary Thrilla in Manila, we got a glimpse of Ali at his ugliest. After Ali's defeat of Foreman, a third fight had been set up in the Philippines between the reborn champ and his fiercest rival, 'Smokin' Joe Frazier.

The two men disliked each other intensely, as would become evident during a brutal and grinding battle fought in cripplingly humid conditions. But uglier still was Ali's pre-fight 'trash talk': the event's catchy name was inspired by Ali's chant that the fight would be a "killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila". Frazier was blacker than Ali, less polished and not prone to witty turns of phrase. So Ali lampooned him in terms that would have got a white fighter in lots of trouble, even shaking a rubber gorilla around during sparring sessions.

Ali won, but there was nothing heroic about that sort of behaviour, and though he tried to apologise, Frazier never really forgave him.

Hollywood producers like broad strokes and simple stories of good and evil, and maybe Muhammad Ali was too complex and multi-layered a character for them to comfortably deal with. But at least he finally made black boxers impossible to ignore. And he must have been pleased by the fact that, when the Rocky franchise was revived early this year in Creed, its young protagonist was a smart and sympathetic underdog who just happened to be black.

Knock-out documentary

If you want to get a sense of just how remarkably charismatic Muhammad Ali was in his prime, you should look no further than When We Were Kings. Leon Gast's documentary film was shot in central Africa in October of 1974, but he took so long to edit it that even his closest friends feared it would never get finished. But when it finally emerged, some 22 years later, it provided the world with an extraordinary and compelling record of a golden era in heavyweight boxing.

Ali was the underdog when he travelled to Zaire to face the huge and hammer-fisted George Foreman, and also had to deal with the embarrassing fact that the fight was being staged in a brutal dictatorship. But while Ali, ever the politician, started by getting the locals onside, poor George Foreman made the mistake of arriving in Kinshasa with a couple of German Shepherd dogs, a hated symbol of Belgian colonial rule. Then a series of delays rattled Foreman, and played into Ali's hands.

But no one could have guessed that Ali would resort to the risky tactic of provoking Foreman at the start of the fight, then clinging to the ropes for eight rounds before catching Foreman by surprise and knocking him out. It was a glorious moment, and might have been even more glorious if Ali had retired on this memorable high, instead of fighting on for six more years, to the detriment of his health.

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