The US ruling class would probably rather we watch the gung-ho war film Black Hawk Down than Ali, a biopic about a black American Muslim who took on the system. But as Muhammad Ali himself said in 1967, 'I am America. I am the part you won't recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky-my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.' The film begins in 1964, when the civil rights movement moved from pacifist protests in the apartheid Southern states to riot and rebellion in the North.
1964 was the year that Harlem exploded. 1964 was the year that three civil rights leaders were murdered. 1964 was the year that Malcolm X was expelled from the Nation of Islam, and became more and more radical. It was also the year that Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston to become world champion.
The opening sequence of Ali contains Malcolm X's famous words of advice: 'Be courteous. But if anyone lays his hand on you make sure they cannot lay their hand on anyone else.' Then follows scenes from Ali's childhood, set to the music of Sam Cooke's album A Change is Gonna Come.
We see him standing on a segregated bus reading the newspaper headlines about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Muhammad Ali was a 22 year old working class black man who rejected American values because America rejected him.
Ali's director, Michael Mann, has said, 'The story I wanted to tell begins in 1964 and ends in 1974. In one way the story is simple-a man wins the heavyweight boxing championship, his title is unfairly taken from him, and he begins his quest to regain his crown and bring about justice. That ten-year period in history was all about fighting for justice.'
This approach leads to some really inspiring moments, especially when Will Smith speaks Ali's own words. His refusal to accept the draft to fight in Vietnam is a highlight of the film. It shows how he linked opposing the war to opposing racism. Some 13 percent of US troops were black, but 28 percent of frontline troops were black.
As Ali put it, 'I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.' As punishment he was stripped of his title, had his passport taken away, and faced five years in prison. He was abandoned at this crucial point by the Nation of Islam, and vilified in the press.
The film painstakingly recreates the images and sounds of the time, as well as Ali's fights. But much of the political references are contained in the background detail. This means it is easy to miss some of the key events of the time.
Unfortunately, it also misses out a key event, when Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into a river after being refused service in a segregated restaurant. The film's climax is Ali's comeback in the 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle'. In this match Ali fought George Foreman to reclaim his title.
At this point both the achievements and the limitations of the Black Power movement and the African national liberation struggle are fused. The fight was the first all-black promotion-a thing that would have been impossible in 1964. But it was a deal cooked up between corrupt promoter Don King and Zaire's dictator, President Mobutu.
Ali's victory was a symbolic victory for all those who stood up to imperialism. It was in the same year that president Richard Nixon resigned as the US faced military defeat. This film is entertaining and inspiring, but not definitive. The film When We Were Kings and Mike Marqusee's book on Ali fill many of the gaps.
But it is a genuine attempt to examine racism and hypocrisy in the US, and to acknowledge those who stood up to it.