When Muhammad Ali passed away on June 4th, 2016, those who knew him, admired him, fought him and loved him attested to his singular skill as a boxer, his fleet footwork and his way with words (especially of the trash-talking variety). What was often emphasized the most in these tributes, however, was how Ali was as much a political firebrand as a gamechanging pugilist – both the 20th century’s consummate athlete and a social activist willing to sacrifice his career by standing up for what he believed. This was the heavyweight champion of the world who was calling America out on its racist roots, who publicly embraced a controversial religion that confused much of Christian America, who was a friend to Malcolm X and who refused to go to Vietnam. He was a man of his time, and those times were extraordinarily turbulent.
You get a good idea of how much the decade between 1964 to 1974 politicized the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay in the 2001 biopic Ali – but for the movie’s director Michael Mann, it still wasn’t good enough. So when he began prepping the movie for its Blu Ray release, the 73-year-old filmmaker decided he was going to change a few things. He’d already revisited the material and recut the movie once, for a TV version that he’s cited in interviews as being superior in terms of narrative flow. Now, however, Mann wanted to bring more of the context that had shaped Ali into the center of the proverbial ring. Some of the original’s fight scenes have been trimmed or excised altogether; sequences that depicted Bruce McGill’s intelligence operative skulking around Africa and President of the Congo Mobutu Sese Seko is watching the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with Idi Amin have been added and/or substantially buffed up. Cheering crowd scenes that said one thing before mean something else entirely now, having been moved forward in the storyline.
The result is less a recut than a radical (and radicalized) revision of Mann’s take on the Greatest, in which the biographical elements recede and a supense film in which everyone – from the Nation of Islam power players who rejected Ali to the U.S. government, C.I.A. spooks to dictators – has the champ in their crosshairs. And according to the director, those elements only make Ali’s story more pertinent than ever. The day before this latest version of Ali hit shelves, Mann talked to Rolling Stone about why he needed to update the film, how he and Will Smith found their vision of the man behind the gloves and what the movie and the man can teach us about life in the Trump era.
Why did you feel the need to go back and make a third cut of the movie?
I wasn’t satisfied with how I felt at the end of the film – which is to say, the story that was being told wasn’t complete. It needed to be reorganized, or re-authored, in a way. If all drama is conflict – and I believe it is – then I needed to make more it more tangible that lots of adversarial elements had arraigned against Ali, and that they were all connected. Suddenly, what becomes more poignant is the sense of the years Ali lost, which would have been the best years of his career as a boxer. You get the pressure impacts on his family, so that Belinda (played by Nona Gaye) believing that George Foreman is going to kill him reads as more a lack of faith. And basically, it connects those elements more to FBI/COINTELPRO operation, the CIA surveillance, and how they all link. Ali was aware of what was going on in the Third World; he knew who [Congolese independence activist] Patrice Lumumba was and why he was considered dangerous.
The idea is that, by emphasizing the fact that Ali was targeted by folks in power – here and abroad – you’re reframing him as a global symbol of freedom?
If this new cut works, it means that the triumph at the end of that George Foreman fight is also Ali truly landed a blow against those powers. It reiterates the thing he says at the very beginning of the film: Who should I be?
And who he’s going to be is someone who’s very powerful as an image … like Howard Cosell says to Ali in the movie, people like Stokely Carmichael are political, but you’re the heavyweight champion of the world. The power of his representation is massive – but this representation was something he created with his life. By the end of the film, he becomes this figure that represents everyone who’s trying to rise up from below. To the people who paint murals of him in the favelas and cheer him on, he’s going to cure sleeping sickness. He’s going to knock out tsetse flies, fighter jets, tanks, capitalists – everything that’s kept people down.
That shift in focus means a few changes are necessary. For example, rather than seeing crowds cheering Ali after the Rumble in the Jungle victory, you put the crowds cheering him before the fight, on his way to the stadium. His final moment is not in the ring; it’s after he tells off Don King and stands among the people. That’s the ambition of this cut.
It feels as if you’ve conjured this political thriller out of the material that had been there the entire time – you just brought it to the surface with this cut.
Yeah, that’s it. That’s completely what we were aiming for – a political thriller that’s actually complementary to Ali’s story. You increase that aspect of the movie and it not only doesn’t take away from Ali’s story, it enriches it.
Will Smith mention in the extras that when he was talking to you about taking the role, you told him, “I will give you the curriculum that will allow you to play him.” What was the curriculum, exactly?
We did a lot of things. There was dialect training: When Will and I started pulling apart recordings of Ali, we realized that not only were his raps complex, but he would rotate between narrative perspectives. Some times he’s like a Southern folklorist, other times he’s an objective narrator, and then occasionally he’s a third character altogether – sometimes all in the same rhyme!
Will was a rapper …
Yeah, but there’s a distinct flow to Ali’s raps, a Southern lilt that’s a little different – so he worked on that. Getting the period attitude was a big part of it. But mostly, it was getting Will in tune with the politics that were around, coming out of the 1950s and into the 1960s, introduced him to [Black Panther] Geronimo Pratt. We talked over why, you know, the establishment felt that the sort of political “rainbow coalitions” that were happening were so dangerous. What did it mean when Fred Hampton started talking to the anti-war movement, [Hispanic political party] La Raza Unida and poor white Appalachians living up on Wilson and Broadway?
We discussd the extent of the COINTEPRO operations, and both their insertion into the Nation of Islam and their probable collusion with the assassination of Malcolm X. Will studied Islam – especially the differences between the Nation’s view of it and traditional Islam. So it was a crash course in what the times were and what the politics were. Plus everybody from that era was still around. There was a terrific civil-rights lawyer named Robert Bennett, who was also Elijah Muhammad’s lawyer; photographer Howard Bingham was around a lot, [trainer] Angelo Dundee was around a lot, Ali was hanging around a lot. And then there was everything with the boxing, which was very complex.
Most people would have started with the boxing training, but this sounds like a full Ali 101 regiment.
“Here’s how you get to become Muhammad Ali.” Right. We were doing the boxing at the same time as that other stuff. Will would box every single morning, about four or five hours. I don’t know if you know this, but Ali was almost perfectly proportioned. From a distance, you couldn’t tell if he was 5’8 or 6’6. Will has a totally different build, so naturally, his foot movements are going to be different … he’s not going to be as naturally agile. And that’s such a big part of Ali’s style – he moved and feinted like a lightweight and hit like a heavyweight, which is what made him so unique.
So to do that, we had Dundee and a few of Ali’s other trainers work with him. We did reflex training with a guy from UCLA who was on the Olympic boxing team and is now a doctor; he devised a loop of Ali’s head-and-shoulder feints, which Will would watch for 10 minutes every night before he went to bed. After two weeks, he was suddenly able to do those moves … I have no idea how or why that works on the subconscious, but it worked.
We decided early on that we weren’t going to cheat. Will was, essentially, going to become a boxer. A fighter has to take a hit, and it took him nine, 10 months to get there, but by the end, he could certainly take a hit. It was just a tremendously brazen, courageous ambition for Will; this guy is obviously a gigantic figure, he’s somewhat elusive and you’re going to presume that you can play Muhammad Ali?!? It’s really ballsy, and to Will’s credit, he took it on.
It made a big difference in how you filmed the fights, right?
Absolutely. Someone once told me that choreography has to tell a story … it’s not just movement. So I’d look at a fight that way: What is the story being told here? So, let’s take the first Sonny Liston fight. The story is that Ali is slipping all his punches, dodging and running away. But at the very end of the round, he plants himself and suddenly Liston walks in to a left jab that hits him right in the forehead. There’s a look of shock and amusement on his face … Ali is only eight pounds lighter than him, but he can hit. That’s why Liston doesn’t sit between the rounds. It’s an awakening for him. That’s the story.
So what we would do is construct a round through three or four set pieces, replicating the combinations that Cassius Clay did. In between, we would do some improvisational sparring – but everyone was making contact. Now, Michael Bentt, who played Liston, was never actually trying to take Will Smith’s head off. But they were throwing punches.
Was it the same with the Foreman fight?
Exactly the same. When you look back at the fight films, that whole sequence – from when he looks over Foreman’s glove and you see a look in Will’s eye – that is exactly punch for punch how he knocked him out. Even the jab that sets up Foreman’s chin … we just went blow for blow there.
In the extras, you mention that when actors take on a role of this magnitude, it changes them. How did making the movie change you as a director?
[Long pause] I know what the answer is, but it’s hard to articulate … I really wanted to find the sense of lyricism that’s in drama. The unexpected passages that are there when you set a story up, and everything suddenly feels new because you’re actually in Mozambique and the music of [Mailian singer] Salif Keita – I wanted to find those authentic moments of grace. To put your self in that place so they can happen – that came out of making Ali. And I’ve tried to do it ever since.
It can’t be a coincidence that you’re putting out a cut of Ali – which emphasizes what how symbolic he was to fighting the power and standing up for what he believes in – at this particular moment in our country’s political life, right?
Well, we started working on this cut before it was determined who was going to win the election. But yeah, the racial aspects and the emphasis on the political impact Ali had … that’s not a coincidence! [Laughs] Obviously, in the Sixties, during a regime that I was not a fan of because I was against the war and my politics leaned very much toward the left, Ali was someone who I looked up to because had a commitment to a stance. He was not the sort of person that would be all “Me, me, me, … I, I, I … what’s my presentation on Facebook ?” He was concerned with the world around him. He was a symbol of resistance. He was willing to sacrifice what he could never reclaim. Those three or four years he didn’t box – they’re gone. Because in the end, he could not look at himself in the mirror and think of himself as being the person he wanted to be if he complied. So, yeah … it’s definitely timely.
Do you think there will be a new generation of Muhammad Alis that may come out of what we’re going through right now?
We will see. If you had asked me six months ago, I’d have said you could scratch the surface of Donald Trump and you’d find a Nelson Rockefeller Republican. I’m not saying that now. No one knows what’s gonna happen. So yeah, we’ll see if there’s a new Ali. There had better be.