2019 Tribeca Film Festival miniseries review: ‘What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali in “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali”

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali has been the subject of several movies, but “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” stands above the rest as the most comprehensive documentary about him so far.

Other documentaries about Ali have examined specific time periods in Ali’s life, such as famous boxing matches (2008’s “Thrilla in Manila”; 1996’s Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings”; and 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”) or Ali’s legal problems when he refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam war (2013’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”). “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” takes a chronological, expansive look at his life, beginning with his humble upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky; his rise to fame that led to several world championships; his awakening as a civil-rights activist and philanthropist; and his battle with multiple sclerosis that led to his death in 2016. Acclaimed director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) brings a definitive cinematic feel to this two-part HBO Sports documentary, which has LeBron James as one of the executive producers.

Unlike most other documentaries about Ali, there are no talking heads providing commentary. It was a wise artistic decision not to pepper the story with retrospective interviews, because they would only distract from the complete immersive experience of the archival footage that transports viewers back to the most significant moments in Ali’s life. Ali’s voice is the singular most important voice in the documentary, as it should be. When viewers hear his poetry, over-the-top bragging and preaching about black pride, it’s not interrupted by “experts” telling people what it all means. Viewers can decide for themselves what Ali meant in his words and actions.

The documentary’s title is in reference to Ali’s rejection of his birth name, Cassius Clay, which was a name that he believed was symbolic of a racist system that stripped African American slaves of their original identities. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali after becoming a member of the Nation of Islam. The name change wasn’t just about his religious conversion but it also represents his metamorphosis from celebrity boxer to outspoken, often-controversial activist who had a close friendship with Malcolm X. The documentary shows several clips of Ali being offended if anyone called him “Cassius Clay” after the name change. One of those clips was Ali’s notorious argument at a 1967 press conference with boxing opponent Ernie Terrell, in a verbal conflict that led to Ali’s famous “What’s My Name” chant. It’s not a question, but a command, for people to take him for who he really is.

Ali was so committed to protesting the Vietnam War that he was sentenced to five years in prison and was stripped of his championship title for three years because he refused to serve in the military during the war. Ali ultimately did not spend time in prison, but he became one of the first prominent athletes who used his celebrity status to protest a war. None of this is new information to die-hard Ali fans or people who were old enough to remember when Ali was vilified for his political beliefs, but people who don’t know this part of Ali’s history will have their eyes opened about how complex and influential Ali has been during and after his lifetime.

Aside from Ali’s social activism, “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” also has riveting footage of Ali’s most notable boxing matches, from the most famous opponents (George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Leon Spinks, Ken Norton, Floyd Patterson) to opponents whose names aren’t as familiar to the general public (Jimmy Ellis, Bob Foster, Oscar Bonavena, Henry Cooper). There are moments that also show the prickly relationship that Ali had with sportscaster Howard Cosell. Ali and Cosell probably got on each other’s nerves because they had something in common: They both loved being the center of attention, even if it meant that politeness and tact had to be thrown out the window.

The documentary shows that Ali’s stunning victories and crushing defeats have life lessons that are relatable to anyone. And when Ali’s boxing injuries and multiple sclerosis take their toll on his ability to speak with his unique rapid-fire charisma, it becomes even more obvious what a great loss this was for Ali’s larger-than-life personality. During his later years, Ali’s spark was still there, but it slowed down over time.

The most glaring omission from “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” is that it ignores Ali’s personal life, which could be a whole other movie unto itself. (He was married four times and had nine children.) But it’s clear that the filmmakers of “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” didn’t want Ali’s experiences as a husband and father to be a distraction from the main story, which is to show Ali’s legacy as an influential and unforgettable public figure.

HBO will premiere “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” on May 14, 2019.