dir. Michael Mann
Opens Christmas Day
Many years ago, a good friend, who got me loaded on his special brownies, told me the story behind Carl Orff's florid Carmina Burana. Apparently, a group of wine-drinking medieval monks wrote the music at registers that were forbidden in Christendom because they were considered to be Satanic. The music was hidden in a monastery for many centuries and rediscovered by a secular era that found its dark majesty entertaining and theatrical.
Whether all of this is true or not does not matter. What is useful for the purposes of this review is the notion that certain registers correspond with specific modes of existence. For example, some registers capture the small but charmed world of a man who repairs leather shoes. Others, the red and blue world of a lap dancer. And then there are registers that mirror the brilliance of a man who is considered to be The Greatest.
As a filmmaker, Michael Mann only deals with registers that correspond with great people. In Heat (1995), he transformed a standard jaded cops vs. honorable robber narrative into a duel between deities, whose bodies and gestures formed the essential shapes of good and evil. Al Pacino (the good form) and Robert De Niro (the bad form) negotiated Mann's Olympian realm like gods. Al Pacino played a God again in The Insider, a God who was taking pity on a mere mortal (Russell Crowe).
So it is not surprising that Mann's new film is the story about an American God who is known simply and purely as The Greatest. Will Smith plays Muhammad Ali, and he is supported by half of black Hollywood: Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Jeffery Wright, Giancarlo Esposito, Jada Pinkett Smith, Joe Morton, and an unaccredited--but always beautiful--Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Malcom X's wife. Even Roots' (the Eden of black Hollywood) Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) makes an appearance in Ali as Martin Luther King, Jr.
The movie opens with a montage of two great men doing great things. On one side, we have Muhammad Ali preparing for a championship fight. On the other side, we have the great Sam Cooke singing a slow jam with the kind of despair and joy one finds on the masks for a Greek tragedy. Though Cooke's song is entirely secular, it draws deeply from the spiritual currents of gospel music.
The introspective registers of gospel music establish the mood of Ali. Indeed, Mann turns to what can only be called "the Negro spiritual" (meaning, the Deep South, with its levees, cotton fields, weeping willows, dreams of freedom) to give expression to the essence of black greatness: Muhammad Ali. The story of Ali (from poverty to fame to immortality) is not told as a sweeping narrative, but as a series of self-contained episodes. Here we have Ali slow-dancing with his first wife Sonji Roi; then we have Ali dealing with Malcom X's fall from grace; next is Ali's confrontation with the US government and its war in Vietnam; and finally, Ali in glorious Africa. In between these episodes are long reenactments of the championship fights that made his career.
As for Will Smith playing Ali: There is not one moment when you think that he is Ali in the way you are completely convinced that Jon Voight is Howard Cosell. Will Smith is always Will Smith. And, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it is not so much a film about Ali, but a narrative vehicle employed to express Will Smith's greatness. No other black biography in the world, except the biography of The Greatest, could adequately express Will Smith's spectacular rise from second-rate rapper to A-list Hollywood star to the brink of eternity.
There is a scene late in the movie that seems to say it all. Will Smith is jogging through a "location" (a ghetto in American terms), followed by a chanting pack of what the poet Ezra Pound once described as the "the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor." Will Smith makes a turn and finds, on a dirty tenement wall, drawn images of giant black men in different fighting scenarios: fighting in the boxing ring, fighting against the Vietnam war, and so on. What's significant about these images is their lack of perspective, depth, dialectics. They are primitive images of greatness.
This is the way gods should be portrayed--as flat. To give depth is to infer that there is something else beyond the simple fact of their greatness. The way Will Smith marvels at the images on the wall (the image of a God) is the way we are meant to appreciate this movie about his own greatness. We are amazed at Will Smith's audacity, and even more amazed that, despite his blatant self-worshipping, Ali is not a bad film.