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Film / Ali

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Ali is a 2001 Biopic about the life of Muhammad Ali.

It chronicles Ali's life from the first Sonny Liston fight in 1964, through his opposition to the Vietnam War which resulted in a long legal fight with the U.S. government, through his 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" showdown fight with George Foreman. It was directed by Michael Mann and stars Will Smith as Ali.

For more about the "Rumble in the Jungle", see 1996 documentary When We Were Kings.

This film contains examples of:

  • The '60s: Takes up the first and second act where the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X's assassination and the Vietnam war provide the setting.
  • The '70s: Takes up the third act, from Ali's reinstatement to his fight with George Foreman. The end of the Vietnam War and the winding down of the 60's counterculture are the backdrop.
  • Aborted Arc: The movie ends abruptly with Ali's defeat of George Foreman in 1974, thus omitting the final four years of his title reign, including his legendary third fight with Joe Frazier ("The Thrilla in Manila"), and the onset of his Parkinson's syndrome.
  • Actually, That's My Assistant: Muhammad Ali, travelling by plane to Zaire, is invited to the cockpit. He finds two men, a white and a black one, and addresses the first one as the pilot. The man retorts "I'm just the copilot, he's the pilot!"
  • Artistic License History:
    • The movie has Ali refusing induction into the U.S. Army, being stripped of the title, and then fighting Ernie Terrell. In fact Ali fought Terrell in February 1967 and was stripped of the title two months later, in April 1967.
    • While training for the Fight of the Century with Joe Frazier, Ali learns from a telephone conversation with Howard Cosell that the Supreme Court has ruled in his favor over his refusal to be drafted into the army. In reality, the decision was not made until June 28, 1971, more than three months after the FOTC. One reason the fight was staged before the ruling was the fear that Ali might lose the case and go to jail, thus derailing the fight.
    • The poem Ali recites prior to the first Frazier fight ("Ali comes out to meet Frazier, Frazier starts to retreat...") was actually used prior to his 1964 bout with Sonny Liston.
    • Ali's wife Belinda flies out to Zaire prior to the Foreman fight (The Rumble in the Jungle) to confront him about his affair with Veronica Porche. In fact, this incident happened before the third fight with Frazier in Manila a year later.
    • Ken Norton, one of Ali's great rivals who faced him in three epic bouts and handed him his second defeat, is reduced to a minor role.
    • The film makes it seem as though Ali did nothing but sit around and get out of shape while he fought his conviction. In reality, he went on an extensive speaking and lecture tour, and even participated in a couple of fights (having gotten his license reinstated).
    • At one point, Ali gives a walking interview about his refusal to go to Vietnam that is just a mish-mash of famous quotes lifted from various interviews and the above-mentioned speaking tour. At least one ("I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet-Cong") is misquoted.
    • Ali's falling out with Malcolm X is exaggerated. While the two were on opposite sides of Malcolm's suspension by the Nation of Islam, the two were on good terms until Malcolm X's assassination, and Ali never explicitly rejected him like he does in the film.
  • Award-Bait Song: "The World's Greatest" by R. Kelly.
  • Badass Boast: As in Real Life, Ali is all about this.
    "I'm 22 years old, I ain't got a mark on my face, I must be the greatest."
  • Big "WHAT?!": This is Cassius Clay Sr.'s reaction when his namesake son informs him that he'll no longer be known by his father's name.
    Elijah Mohammad: [to the man previously known as Cassius Clay, and later, Cassius X] From this day forward, you shall be known as Muhammad Ali.
    [cut to the next scene at the front yard of Cassius Sr.'s home, where a visibly shocked father turns around to face his son]
    Cassius Clay Sr.: What? WHAT?!?
  • Biopic: For better or worse, THE Ali biopic.
  • The Cameo: Several. Levar Burton has a non-speaking part as Martin Luther King. "LA Times" sports reporter Bill Plashke plays a sports reporter. James Toney, a real life boxer, plays Joe Frazier.
  • Dies Wide Open: Malcolm X when he is assassinated.
  • Dodgy Toupee: Ali lifts up Howard Cosell's toupee on live TV.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": At the weigh-in, Ernie Terrell calls Ali "Clay". The former Cassius Clay gets severely pissed at this, and in the subsequent fight delivers a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown while repeatedly shouting "What's my name?".
  • The Dreaded: George Foreman, after he is introduced pulverizing Joe Frazier in the famous "Down goes Frazier!" fight. This may be a case of Reality Is Unrealistic for younger viewers more familiar with Foreman as the avuncular figure who sells grills on TV.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Ali is stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing induction into the Army, banned from boxing for three years and risks a possible jail sentence. Seven years later he is finally redeemed when he regains the title against the odds by defeating George Foreman.
  • Foreshadowing: Ali's sarcastic comments when watching The Mummy on TV foreshadow his strategy for winning the Foreman fight.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Ali gets a pretty big upgrade:
    • His extreme views on race and religion are toned down significantly, views which, in real life, caused a great deal of controversy even amongst people who otherwise held him out as a hero. Notably his denunciation of integrationist policies and the Civil Rights Act is absent, as are the episodes of him preaching of America's imminent destruction (per Nation of Islam theology).
    • The movie downplays Ali's significant mean streak when it came to his opponents. In addition to taking some delight in humiliating opponents he didn't like personally (Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell being the most infamous examples), his pre-fight insults often degenerated into cheap shots and racial stereotyping (such as calling George Foreman "a white, flag-waving bitch" and Joe Fraizer "an ugly, dumb gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom").
  • The Infiltration: The FBI has a man inside the Nation of Islam.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Albeit a brief one. In the opening montage, we see Ali as a boy on a bus in Louisville reading an article about the lynching of Emmitt Till, and also watching his father paint a portrait of Jesus.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title
  • Mythology Gag: "A Change Is Gonna' Come" is playing on the car radio as Ali hears about Malcolm X's assassination. The same song played on the film Malcolm X as Malcolm drove to where he would be murdered.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Bundini Brown. He gets off some good one-liners, at least, but otherwise his usefulness to Ali isn't immediately clear.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." Ali's refusal to submit himself to the draft came with a great personal price.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: Ali after taking an uppercut from George Foreman.
  • Team Power Walk: Ali and entourage walking down a long corridor to the weigh-in for the first Sonny Liston fight.
  • Throwing the Fight: Discussed after Sonny Liston goes down with one punch in the rematch.
  • Thunder = Downpour: The film ends after the Foreman fight with a clap of thunder followed immediately by pouring rain.
  • Training Montage: The opening sequence of Ali training for the Liston fight, intercut with a scene of Sam Cooke in concert and scenes from Ali's early life.