Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Chris Houkal explores William Klein’s Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1974). Klein, an American ex-pat living in France, is best known for his street and fashion photography as well as several feature films he made in the 1960s and 70s. His interests in photography, politics, and documentary are on full display in this film chronicling several important events in the career of Muhammad Ali.
“Who is he? Sunday school trainee…the independent hipster…the jazzman turned boxer.”
-Reporter on Muhammad Ali in Muhammad Ali: The Greatest
The man born Cassius Clay has lived a fascinating life. We think we know everything there is to know about this man who’s become an American icon – and iconoclast. He was a great boxer. He became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He talked big. In fact, some drama students in William Klein’s 1974 documentary, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, could very well be our stand-ins when they call Ali a poet, a Muslim, and a champ.
You might be surprised to hear that Ali’s status as a champion was hotly contested during the time The Greatest was being shot, prior to his winning the heavyweight championship in 1964. There was, as of yet, nothing to suggest that a 22-year old unseasoned fighter like Clay would steal the title from a pro like Sonny Liston. As the director says, “He was like a clown for the white press, nobody took him seriously.” Little did anyone know at the time that this brash young braggart was about to shake up the boxing world, and in some ways the greater world as well.
One can’t watch The Greatest without being confronted by its distance from contemporary society. The first half of the film chronicles events in Ali’s career between early 1964 and mid-65, a time of great change in America. Consider the following:
- Just six months before his first victory over Liston, Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.
- Just three months before, President Kennedy was assassinated.
- Under the new president, Lyndon Johnson, a number of legislative pieces intended to address civil rights issues quickly came into being:
- the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, which had made it difficult for generations of poor southern blacks to vote.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination of any kind was signed into law.
- Freedom Summer, an attempt to register black voters in the deep south, got underway.
- In 1965, around the time of Ali’s rematch with Liston, Malcom X – Ali’s spiritual mentor – was assassinated.
- That year the Watts neighborhood in L.A. erupted in violence.
- Affirmative Action went into effect for the first time.
This was a time of breathtaking change and in many ways Muhammad Ali the man perfectly embodies this period in American history.
Klein did a great job of capturing Ali’s defiance and attitude toward a system which so clearly wanted nothing to do with him or his kind, never mind the changes that were being implemented in Washington. Ali wasn’t buying it and he’d had enough. He pulls no punches (sorry) when it comes to his stance on integration – he’ll have none of it. What’s more, he shows no gratitude to those who claim to be responsible for his success. These men, referred to as “the syndicate,” represent a who’s who of Kentucky movers and shakers – all rich and all white and all bearing a strong grudge toward this man they claim to have taken from nothing and shaped into a champ. Thing is, Ali doesn’t care. He knows he is nothing more than an investment for them. But it’s not just the syndicate which sees only monetary reward in Ali. Another man, a northern boxing official who appears after the rematch in Boston is cancelled can’t seem to come to terms with the loss of revenue to the city. In a cheeky bit of editing, Klein cuts together shots of the official saying “loss” several times, as if he’s more automaton caught in a loop than human. He never mentions the boxers or the fact that the match was cancelled because of Ali’s emergency hernia operation. As for the southern syndicate, Ali represents only money to him.
Truth is, white Americans don’t come off very well in this film. Klein certainly knew what he was doing when he inserted these scenes and it’s through them that we see how Muhammad Ali: The Greatest attempts to do more than examine Ali’s personal life: it takes on America itself. Klein allows the perpetrators of Jim Crow and casual racists alike to damn themselves through their interviews. The inclusion of these scenes also go a long way in creating empathy in the viewer – of any race – for a man who might otherwise come off as being racist himself. In other words, his animus is fairly justified.
This is not to say that we don’t learn anything about Ali’s personal life. Klein’s thoughtful storytelling-style reveals a lot about the man. It’s sometimes hard for us Americans, celebrity-obsessed as we are, to remember that famous people are not so different from ourselves. To remind us of this, Klein gives us casual scenes aplenty of Ali going about his day-to-day routine: at a hotel, on a bus, training, and so forth. These scenes offer a welcome reprieve from all the fights, but they also showcase Ali’s human side. He often comes off as a giant kid just having some laughs. But there are times when he can be surprisingly introspective and occasionally pretty witty.
At one point, while pretending that his bus is being attacked by highway bandits (which somehow turns into a plane about to crash) he calls out to a non-existent stewardess asking for advice on what to do. He says, as if reacting to her: “Recite a Bible verse? Well, I don’t know no Bible verse. Just do something religious? Hmm, I’ll take up a collection.”
Muhammad Ali: The Greatest is at its best when Klein gets creative. This being a low budget documentary and not a Hollywood blockbuster, there is presumably just one camera person doing all the filming. As you might expect, this limits action sequences. No, you won’t find any fancy Raging Bull-type boxing scenes with cameras capturing the fight from every angle. To replicate the experience, Klein – a photographer of some note – cut together still-photos of the fight in a way that suggests action. During one such sequence we see a wide shot of Ali standing over a defeated opponent. In the editing room this was made to look as if a camera zooms up to Ali’s face, to capture his look of domination. At the same time white lights, representing camera flash bulbs, light up the scene. The cuts are short or quick, to match the action, and even dissolves are employed in a unique way, implying movement within the ring.
Klein uses another artistic effect to condense time as well as to change things up a bit. Ali’s very first fight, in which he wins the heavyweight title, is never actually shown. It is portrayed only by a childish drawing of Ali over Liston in a ring with the words, “I told you I was great. I stopped Liston in eight.” He then zooms into the date: Feb. 11, which was two weeks prior to the fight – so we know someone was rooting for him – and the words: “Cassius Clay Next Champ.” The artist also drew an audience filled with unhappy fans, an acknowledgement that Ali is the clear underdog. All of this could have been filmed, and maybe it was. But that drawing, presented onscreen for a few mere seconds, tells us all we need to know about that night. It’s neat tricks like these that make the film Muhammad Ali: The Greatest nearly as revolutionary as the man.
I am by no means a boxing expert – let alone fan – but this film moved me: as an American, a child of the children of the sixties, and as a filmmaker. I came away feeling as if I’d learned something important. There’s an urgency here, both in what’s being said and shown and in how it’s being said and shown. There are no reenactments. There is no voice-over narration. And there are no glossy effects. In other words, none of the things we expect from our documentaries these days. Yet I don’t feel like I sacrificed my time while watching it, like I do after sitting through some recent docs. Watching films like this make me sad for the era I live in. As the cliché goes: they just don’t make them like they used to.