"Float like a butterfly,
sting like a bee."
"The Rumble in the Jungle."
This is the story of a brash, loud and witty man who called himself "The Greatest." Cassius Clay, a boy from the ghettos of Louisville, Ky., crammed a lifetime of living into a 15-year period spanning the 1960s and early '70s. He went from world heavyweight champ to pariah in a twinkling, becoming one of the most reviled men in America when he converted to Islam (and declared his name was Muhammad Ali). He also set a Supreme Court precedent for conscientious objection in wartime when he refused to go to Vietnam. He was a womanizer. A loudmouthed braggart. And a fearsome fighter.
positive elements: Few agreed with his opinions and public stances at the time (some of his viewpoints are questioned to this day), but Ali had the strength of his convictions. Among them, he was willing to give up his prime boxing years by refusing—for newfound religious reasons—to join the draft for the Vietnam-era Army. He tells his wife, "How I am says something about me." Also, Joe Frazier, the world heavyweight champion who has everything to lose and nothing to gain by offering Ali a challenge, does so anyway. In the next breath, he asks Ali, who is in financial straits because of an unofficial boycott against him, if he needs any money or help for his family. Howard Cosell refuses to blacklist or boycott Ali.
spiritual content: No discussion of Muhammad Ali would be complete without mentioning his conversion to Islam, his involvement with the Black Muslim movement (also called the Nation of Islam) and his relationship with black revolutionary Malcolm X in the early '60s. Upon Ali's conversion, his brother exclaims (in the movie), "But you're a Christian!" Ali responds, "I ain't praying to no blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus." He insists that his first wife, Sonji, dress modestly in the Muslim manner. (She refuses, leading to his first divorce.) Ali faces Mecca and prays before every fight. Malcolm X tells an audience, "There are those who would tell you to turn the other cheek. I tell you, 'Don't turn the other cheek.'" Ali's trainer, Bundini Brown, is a self-proclaimed black Jew and refers to Moses leading Ali to the promised land. But he also says—tongue in cheek—that he'll use his voodoo and magic to help Ali. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, "excommunicates" Ali for his friendship with Malcolm X, who had split from the main black Muslim movement. After Elijah reinstates Ali, a friend says, "Praise Allah. You can be a Muslim again." Ali responds, "I never stopped being one." In a fit of drunken despair, Bundini Brown tells Ali, "God don't care about you or me." Ali's second wife asks, "Why is my Muslim husband allowing himself to be strung up on a cross?" A remorseful Ali, going on his third marriage, says, "I should have become a Muslim when I was 20 because I'm so weak around women." (His "faith" didn't seem to help him even after he converted.) Furthermore, his words and his actions part company when Ali rebukes his second wife, instructing her that "marriage is the cornerstone of Muslim life." Boxing promoter Don King says he has to be a Moses in reverse ("don't let my people go") when Foreman threatens to walk out on a fight.
sexual content: Ali has a weakness for pretty women. A woman dancing with him in a nightclub moves Ali's hand from her waist to a more intimate location, then offers to take him home with her. An intense scene of sexual intercourse follows (no nudity is shown, but Sonji is shown in her bra). She asks him afterward, "Are you a virgin?" He responds, defensively, "I ain't no virgin, but I might as well have been tonight." Another scene shows Ali and his second wife kissing in bed until they are interrupted by a baby's cries. That same wife, finding Ali making eyes at another woman, calls him on it. "I've put up with the casual ones," she says, "but not this." Bundini Brown says, "I may be a Jew, but I like pork and white women. I can give up pork, but the white women? No way." Also included: a shot of excessive cleavage and couple of sexually derived jokes.
violent content: For a boxing movie, director Michael Mann shies away from graphic violence. That's not to say he doesn't still include a lot of body blows, a dirty rabbit punch to the back of the neck, a few hits to the face, a split eyebrow and a fat lip. Malcolm X is assassinated by a shotgun blast, blowing him off a platform and splattering blood. Other gunmen then empty pistols into him. A young Cassius Clay fixates on a graphic newspaper photo of a lynched boy.
crude or profane language: Five or six f-words and more than a dozen other crudities, including the s-word. God's name is profaned once.
drug and alcohol content: Several scenes in a nightclub show people smoking and drinking. Howard Cosell frequently has a cigar in his mouth. Bundini Brown is an alcoholic, disguising straight vodka as a glass of water in one scene. He descends deeper into alcoholism, and Ali confronts him by smashing a bottle of booze against the wall.
other negative elements: The "n-word" is used several times, always by black people, but that doesn't detract from its offensiveness. Ali shows selective loyalty, cutting off contact with his good friend Malcolm X when ordered to by Elijah Muhammad. For some time, he refuses to show mercy toward Bundini Brown, although he eventually does take him back. He publicly rebukes promoter Don King for badmouthing Ali's main trainer, Angelo Dundee. Even though he was barely literate, Ali was remarkably articulate. Unfortunately, he often used his gift of language to tease and taunt others.
conclusion: Anyone who grew up in the Ali era will find Will Smith's performance as Ali stunning. He has perfectly captured Ali's voice, syntax and mannerisms. He even bulked up, putting on nearly 40 pounds for the role (still, visually he's never quite Ali, since he's much taller and lankier). Jon Voight disappears into the role of Howard Cosell, and everyone else turns in stellar performances. Even though I believe boxing is a brutal sport, I found myself mesmerized by Ali's (Smith's) strength and grace in the ring. Foul language and sexual situations put this movie down for the count for most families. But for those who decide to get into the ring anyway, they would do well to add value to their trip back in time by studying the film's historical accuracy and analyzing its religious content. Discuss how in Ali's life, the strict legalism of Islam (particularly that practiced by the Nation of Islam) did not have the power to transform him and led to the casual dismissal of his first wife because she wouldn't dress a certain way—a good contrast to the grace and true spiritual power offered by Christ.