The director of the 30 for 30 short speaks to us about the GOAT's legacy, Iraq, Parkinson's Disease and how Muhammad Ali once talked a man out of jumping out of a window.
Exclusive of your 30 for 30 short, what are your thoughts on Muhammad Ali?
Amani Martin: Oh wow. Obviously, where do you start with Ali? I’ll start with a personal story. I don’t want to say idolizing in that kind of way, but Ali was a huge inspiration to my father. My father, Nathaniel Martin, grew up in the Bronx. He was a community activist and involved in the Civil Rights Movement, etc. He and Ali were close enough in age and just on a peer level, I think he was just inspired by some of the things Ali was standing up for because he didn’t have to. I think he was sort of the model for him of the athlete as the social activist. That was the proper role for an elite athlete. The athletes that my dad and I talked about were the ones who did something. My father was athletic and appreciated athletes for performance, but the ones he respected were the ones doing things off the field as well – Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and Bill Russell. A lot of the work that I’ve done has been on that sort of intersection of sports and something else. Things like politics and social justice movements for example. That came from my dad, so I was inspired by his love of Ali.
You and I are the same in that regard. Thank you Pops. Let’s talk about the doc. Why this doc and how did the concept originate?
Amani Martin: The project came to me. The way that this happened is ESPN is almost like a studio. A lot of original programming originates inside, but also with the 30 for 30 platform with the feature docs and now with the shorts, it has the 30 for 30 branding. So people understand the kind of stuff they want to present and so people bring them ideas. Core Media Group, the company that has the Ali license, actually brought the concept to ESPN. ESPN in a sense was the matchmaker with the project and I. They said there’s an Ali project and we’d like you to meet with Core. I had no idea what the project was about, but it’s Ali, so I’m doing it.
The cool thing is it ended up being a story I hadn’t heard of. I was aware of the war, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t heard of this story. I’m sure I was watching a good amount of CNN back then. I had no recollection of Ali’s trip there, so I was intrigued by that. How often do you get a chance to tell a story about Ali that people haven’t heard of?
Folks back then were ostracized for being outspoken in the opposition of the war. It had a lot to do with the perception of the Muslim religion. The great point about your doc is that many will view Ali’s trip as if it just happened. Good history lesson.
Amani Martin: I think you’re right about that. You’re definitely right about that. There was another component too and it speaks a little more broadly of how Ali was in that era. Ali was the easiest...if you were covering Ali, that was the easiest job in the world. What did you show up with? You showed up with a mic and a question and he would basically take care of the rest right? It’s 1990 and he’s 6 years with Parkinson’s. I think a lot of the media didn’t know what to do with him. You couldn’t get the easy sound bites. Things moved on to other people like talking about Tyson (Mike) and Holyfield (Evander), etc. I think part of it was how do we tell this story? We had always told his story through his voice. We can’t do it so much now. It made it more challenging, but definitely the Muslim aspect was important.
Talking to the hostages and especially being human shields, I’m sure you got great perspective. Speak to the emotion you saw in the eyes. Had to be a time of uncertainty for those involved.
Amani Martin: Putting it into an historical context, this is 1990. A lot of folks didn’t have cell phones. The telecommunications structure was not the same (as it is now). They were not here, so the scariest thing was they were in Iraq, and didn’t know how long they were going to be there and didn’t have a way to get in communication with their families. Not only did they not know anything that was going on with their families, but they knew their families didn’t know what was going on with them, so there was worry on both of those fronts. For the most part, they were treated relatively well, but they always had the fear that stuff was going to hit the fan. It was the fear, especially as the deadline was approaching, that as soon as any US military presence crossed the border into Iraq they were all going to be killed.
Iraq has been seen as such a basket case for so long that I think...like say if you are someone who is 27, you have never seen anything about Iraq that was anything but a battle zone. A warzone. So when I’m talking to the hostages who are conservative, ex-military people working in Iraq, I asked what was Iraq like for you before? Was it like a hardship post? They answered we loved Iraq. We loved the people there. We loved to tour around. We loved the monuments. We loved the restaurants. It was like they were talking about Rome. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it but I did start the film...when you see the hostages at first, they are talking about Iraq because I think the place has been so stigmatized by stuff that happened over the last quarter century that you shouldn’t forget that it’s a place that had and has great potential.
Looking through all the footage, could you give the reader a sense of how the project developed through sorting through all the images from a director’s view?
Amani Martin: That’s a good question. I know that whatever has to do with Ali, I know I’m doing it. I know I’m going to need two different types of footage. Footage of his trip to Iraq and his trip to Iraq was covered by some of the networks, but it kind of gets messed up as you see in the film. Such as him in mosques, with the Iraqi people and in his hotel room. That was all shot by a filmmaker who was traveling with Ali around that time. Core ultimately acquired that collection. A lot of what I went through was that footage. I knew that the storytelling was going to be what was available. I didn’t know how well Ali was speaking at the time. The image that starts the film is of him at a sports awards ceremony. That was a lucky accident because it was a cool way of opening the film. What I didn’t realize at first is that it was five weeks before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The reason Ali ran out of his Parkinson’s medication when he was in Baghdad was because he was supposed to go to Iraq a week earlier, but he got worried before he left because his mom had a stroke. He went back to Louisville to make sure she was OK. He was there for a week, she was stabilized and he went to Iraq. So, he basically ate into a week of his Parkinson’s medication. Saddam Hussein was kind of stalling before the meeting, so he ended up being there for a while. Running out, he was in bad shape. He was bed bound and couldn’t speak at all.
One of things I understood that I would have to build the story using these images and I wouldn’t be able to use Ali’s soundbites to tell the story. One of the things that are unique about this film is that Ali’s voice isn’t driving this Ali film. It couldn’t.
That’s a helluva challenge. You pulled it off.
Obviously Ali is an important figure for all times. He’s probably someone who will be spoken of 500 years after we’re all gone. To be able to go over and win the release of the hostages, why do you think that was able to actually happen? Of course Saddam Hussein was defiant with everyone at the time. Why Ali?
Amani Martin: I think that Ali was the only person who could have done this. The reason is Saddam obviously had to agree to the meeting. Saddam was trying to play his own political game. The reason he wanted to see Ali was because of Ali’s huge popularity in the Muslim world, but also his huge global popularity and in the United States. Saddam was probably aware that Ali wasn’t in the shape he was in earlier (in his life) so it was probably easier for him to take command of that meeting. Ali didn’t try to play Saddam, but he played his cards well. He had to get those hostages out. I’m not necessarily saying this is cause and effect, but when Ali got those 15 hostages out...Saddam wasn’t going to give them to any Bush (President George Bush) representative. Those human shields were his last leverage. He had released other human shields, but holding Americans at strategic bases was the last leverage he had to deter US led strikes. Once Ali got those hostages out it dismantled his human shield program. There were a few left and all of them were released a week later.
What do you want people to get out of your short?
I want them to understand that this man (Ali) was obviously great on the screen. He was riveting and you can’t take your eyes off him. He was eloquent and powerful and beautiful, but he continued to have so much power and influence just by virtue of his aura -- even after he was ill and didn’t have the physical and verbal capabilities.
You asked about the footage. I was going through all these shots and footage. Some of it had to do with Baghdad. Some of the wildest stories. You get mesmerized going through all the footage of the ‘70s and ‘80s. One story was in Philly. A lof of stuff was Ali just going around neighborhoods in Philly and Detroit. Just popping in at a shopping mall or a community center, etc., unannounced and hanging out. There was one camera there, but that wasn’t the point. He would go in and do magic tricks, hang out with people, joke with people and/or shadow box but was always a man of the people. When you look at these clips, he’s doing that wherever he is in the world. He’s a complete citizen of the world. Back to Philly. There was this clip where was a guy who was mentally ill suffering from post traumatic stress. A Vietnam vet about to jump out of a window from the eighth floor of this building. Ali and his camp happened to be walking by and asked the cops if he could help. They were like “Sure, we don’t know what else to do.” So Ali ends up going up to an adjacent window and just talked to the guy. We don’t know what he says, but the guy is being heard and sort of nods, steps back in the window and comes down with Ali.
That’s amazing. I would have liked to talk to his family about that in the aftermath.
The end quote: “I do need publicity, but not for what I do for good. I need publicity for my book. I need publicity for my fights. I need publicity for my movie, but not for helping people. Then it’s no longer sincere.” Whoa. So when Ali was talking about the publicity (obviously a huge distinction from getting paid), why did you feel it necessary to add that clip?
Amani Martin: Wow. I’ve seen so many Ali clips and Ali soundbites. When I heard that one, I was like wow, I never heard that before. For me, there was always this duality of Ali. All the humanitarian efforts, it was clear he was doing them for the right reasons and that’s to help people. At the same time, he was like Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey. He was a serious showman. I’d never seen him articulate his position on that...what seemed like a paradox? Him being that showman, but also him doing things on the low quietly just to help people. That’s why it was there. It summed up, despite being from the ‘70s, why he felt it important to go to Iraq and do it the way that he did.
Did you want this to be longer?
Amani Martin: I pushed the short because I just got finished working on Benji. Benji took like a year. I was very happy to do something short just to bang it out because documentaries are a grind. Benji was a wonderful project, but I didn’t necessarily want to jump right on another feature length film. I wanted to do something for that series even before I knew I was going to be doing something for Ali. Once I looked at what the challenges were of telling this story based on his (Ali’s) speech capabilities at the time, it was OK to do the story in a short timeframe.
Finally two questions about you to provide readers with a context of who you are. The first being, what is your stamp? What do you want to accomplish doing what you do so well?
Amani Martin: That’s a good question. That’s something I’m still working out. I think of my career in the way I suspect a lot of actors do or the way that you do which is to have the ability to work on projects that really excite you. Six months ago I wasn’t thinking someone would present a Muhammad Ali project to me. So when it came along, I was excited to be able to work on it. I want to be in a position where I’m working on these types of films -- sports, but not exclusively sports -- but where sports can be a great lens into some bigger issue. Where I become somebody who is at the top of lists to do those types of stories and I have those types of choices. The great scripts. I want to be able to have those types of concepts presented to me. I want to do stuff more series related. I love the idea of docu-series. I’m actually working on a project on an NFL agent based in Philly named Ed Wasielewski. He represents about 8 to 10 guys in the NFL (Evan Rodriguez of the Bears and Rob McClain of the Falcons to name two). What appealed to me about him is he’s a guy who was struggling and was a good to honest agent. He is ethical and it posed a challenge in the recruitment of players. I was intrigued by a guy trying to do it the right way, but barely able to survive. I’m also working on a script for a feature film that I’m excited about. It’s fiction and based on a trip I took with my boys to Brazil almost ten years ago now. It’s set in New York and Rio.
The last question is about HBO. You spent the early stages of your career there. You were a part of great work. How did that kind of galvanize who you are now professionally?
Amani Martin: Working at HBO...it was an incredible place. It’s sort of a boutique. You have an opportunity to work on a lot of different shows there. I worked on Inside the NFL. I went from a researcher to a producer. I played tennis in college, so I got to work on Wimbledon because they had the Wimbledon broadcast. Real Sports, the documentaries. HBO Sports is a great place because they really emphasize storytelling. That’s where I learned my chops. There’s a lot of storytelling now and it is at a premium at HBO. ESPN has kind of borrowed that DNA and extended it. I owe a huge debt to the HBO years. I left there with the prestige of having been there and it’s been a boon for my career.