When they are done right, they can make you feel you know a famous person intimately. Such is the case with “I am Ali.” A revealing and intimate feature documentary on one of the most recognized sports figures in history, it’s a well edited and engaging piece that features previously unseen family photographs and private tape recordings. “He always thought the children would love to hear themselves when they are older and knew this was going to be history one day, so Muhammad Ali made these tapes of his children at home on these little cassettes,” shares director Clare Lewins who collaborated with Ali’s daughters to produce the piece. “People would ring him and he would tape record it. He was just like a little operator recording them on the answer phone.”
Maryum and Hana Ali at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills – photo by Royalty Image
A personal account of Ali not just as a fighter but as a father, husband, brother, friend and a man who stood up for what he believed in, it’s a collection of tapes that brings back memories for Maryum and Hana, Ali’s daughters (he has nine children) who fondly recall several of the conversations featured in the film. “I just remember those conversations very clearly,” shares his eldest daughter Maryum whose playful and candid conversation with her father opens the film. “He let the kids be around him. We were like daddy’s girls and went everywhere he went.” Stunningly candid, emotional and tremendously entertaining, “I am Ali” is also mixed with clips and photos from his career. We see “the greatest” who initially retired from boxing in 1979 at the age of 37 (he came out of retirement in 1980 to fight Larry Holmes) at his highs, pulling punches, sharing jokes and spending quality time with his children.
Ali and Veronica on a plane
“Daddy was like a big kid,” recalls Hana who is also penning a book on her legendary father. “He woke me up to kisses every morning and his door was never closed. It didn’t matter if he was talking to the President of the United States, he gave himself and his time and made me feel like I was the best little girl in the world.” Filmed in 20 days, each story reveals a different aspect of Ali’s character with several touching interviews and testimonials from his inner circle of family and friends that include his daughters, son Muhammad Ali junior, ex-wife Veronica Porche and brother Rahaman, who was at his side throughout. Boxing legends Mike Tyson, George Foreman and business manager Gene Kilroy are also featured amidst a soundtrack that includes music by Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin.
There are several documentaries of the boxer, but “I am Ali” stands apart with its unique approach and it’s this genuinely incisive portrait that makes the film truly revelatory. “Listening to these recordings I am learning the memories that I don’t remember having,” continues Hana. “I want people to take away the incredible human being that he was, the love that he had for his children and people and his incredible spirit.”
Samantha Ofole-Prince is a journalist and movie critic who covers industry-specific news that includes television and film. She serves as the Entertainment Editor for Trendy Africa. Pictures courtesy of Focus Features