Eye On Film: I Am Ali

According to Internet Movie Database, Muhammad Ali has appeared in over 150 films, documentaries or television programs in his 70 plus years on this planet. He is easily one of the most fascinating personalities of the 20th century and some would say that he is still the most famous man in the world. He is the hero to a generation of Americans, the champion of a race of people and friend to the poor. In the documentary I Am Ali, director Clare Lewins uses intimate audio recordings made by Muhammad Ali himself as she uses them to punctuate first hand interviews by people who knew him best, his family.  The 111 minute offering just might be the most emotionally authentic of all the works in which Ali has found himself. The Shadow League spoke with director Clare Lewins, as well as daughters Hana and Maryum Ali, regarding the nuances of the film.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Muhammad Ali,” said Lewins in describing how the film came about. “I made a film for the BBC called My Best Friend about Muhammad Ali a few years ago. Gene Kilroy was the best friend and we’ve kept in touch ever since. It was at Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party Gene asked if I would like to come. And I said I to would really love to do a really good documentary about him. A real proper documentary. I thought that if I could get people who really know him well I could find out why he’s so special and so beloved.  Obviously, I’m not a big name in the boxing world. Gene opened doors for me really. That’s where I met Hanna and May May and made the film.”

The aforementioned tape recordings act as a conduit in time and space through which the youthful, vibrant Ali steps through to modern times. 

“There’s about 80 recordings and they’re all about an hour long,” explained Hana. “There’s only about twelve minutes’ worth in the film. The recordings he made from my family were from 1976 to 1985. He’s just documenting what’s going on his life. He’s got the world’s first reality show.  He’s documenting what’s going on in his life behind the scenes. He was a parent, there’s also stuff about him opening the lines of communication between the U.S. and Tehran in the Iran Hostage situation in 1979.  All kinds of different stuff. I think he was trying to document his own life and record his own legacy. His legacy as a father to us and capturing special moments of us as children so we have that to cherish later in life because he’s always valued time and the passing of time. He always made us aware of that, even as little kids.  He had a natural value for that and he loved the beauty of everyday living. He had a lot of time to spend at home because he was retired when he was married to my mother. He got to be an at home father with us. He loved the feeling and missed our siblings from previous relationships and he wanted to make sure that we knew that they were his and that he was their father too.”

Some believe the NBA star LeBron James is the most famous person of African descent in the world, others believe it is President Barack Obama. However, many citizens across the globe would still utter the name Muhammad Ali whenever that question is asked. The fastest heavyweight of all time, the brashness and boastfulness he often displayed, actually belied his incredible humility. But cameras just loved Ali from the very beginning.

“He was documented since he was younger, since the age of 12,” said Maryum Ali. “He started boxing and did ‘Tomorrow’s Champions’, which was a local Louisville show of local boxers. He was recorded before the Olympics and during the Olympics. So, he was used to his history being recorded and he valued that. He didn’t underestimate that and kind of imparted that to us. He was always, always conscious of time and how fleeting it is and how fast it goes by. Before Twitter and Facebook and all that, he knew to record all these things. What’s so amazing about it is these are the last of his vocal legacy. You listen to some of the recordings and you can hear some of the slurred speech starting to set in more.”

Another of Ali’s celebrated attributes was his generosity. However, there were some things that he simply would not give away.

“He gave away everything. He gave away gloves, he gave away belts. The kids don’t have anything because he gave it all away,” said Maryum. “If you were his best friend and said ‘Hey I like that.’ He would say ‘Oh, here.’ But this is the only thing he wouldn’t give away. He gave them to Hanna because he didn’t want anyone to have these tapes but his family. I’m really happy that this is the one thing he wanted his kids to have. It’s special. This was the personal side of him and he knew not to let anyone have these but the children. So, we’re really proud of that.”

I Am Ali also offers a unique glimpse into the childhoods of Hana, Maryum, Muhammad Ali, Jr., Laila Ali and their other siblings.   

“Totally two different experiences,” said Maryum, who is the oldest of all her siblings. “My experience was, when I was little, he was very famous. He’s always very famous, but he was boxing right at that time. I remember when Ken Norton broke his jaw and he had his jaw wired shut. The Joe Frazier fight, there was some death threats, there were little kids who I could tell had racist parents who didn’t like my father. They would come to school and call me the N-word and stuff like that. So, I caught some of that stuff.  I remember the controversial Ali. But, luckily, my father gave me the tools to deal with that. I would stick up for myself, I wouldn’t allow anybody to bully me, and I stood up for my religious beliefs. He taught me how to do all of that. But then, there was the great side, people’s love for my Dad showered upon me. I saw the good and the bad. Some of the bad was really low as far as people of other races. But with African Americans, it was always, ‘Oh, your father fought for us and stood for what was right, and stood up for equality’. I had a great upbringing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It made me a very wise woman being his daughter.”

Though Maryum’s experience growing up as the daughter of Ali had some rough spots, but Hana recalls her father having to instill humility in her because she was aware of his standing at a very early age.

“My Dad had to instill a lot of humility in me growing up because I knew he was special early on,” said Hana. “I would go around saying ‘My Daddy’s Muhammad Ali.’ I remember walking through the airport and hearing this thunderous applause as we were rushing to our plan. When we would get on the plane, he would give his seat up so someone else could sit in first class and we would sit in coach. He was so giving and amazing. That happened so many times. My Dad would have to sit me down and tell me a lot, especially when I was younger, that nothing in this world makes you better than anybody else but your heart.”

I Am Ali opens nationwide today (October 10) and will go to DVD shortly afterwards. This high-quality, meticulously-crafted and heartfelt production also features commentary from NFL great Jim Brown, former rival George Foreman, Marvis Frazier, Rahaman Ali, Tom Jones, Mike Tyson and many others. The Shadow League give I Am Ali a solid A.