Telling Muhammad Ali's story in full: "What really struck me the most was how much humility he had"

Salon talks to Antoine Fuqua about the new doc "What's My Name" and how he sought to tell such a remarkable story

Published May 5, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

"What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali" (Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC)
"What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali" (Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC)

The most compelling documentaries about influential, illustrious icons whose achievements are widely known are the ones that reveal the person's humanity. And it's an important endeavor. The way society plucks and places certain people onto pedestals can be deeply dehumanizing — flattening their legacy in favor of a lore that features a neat order of events of perseverance and triumph, one that can be pitched to a mainstream audience. Most importantly, the fabric of the story must be one that isn't at all threatening to the status quo. We see this manipulation annually with the popular remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Something similar often happens with Muhammad Ali.

However, finally for Ali, there is a corrective. A forthcoming two-part documentary, "What's My Name | Muhammad Ali," directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Equalizer"), premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last weekend and will air on HBO May 14. The documentary, executive produced by LeBron James and made with permission from Ali's family, features stunning archival footage, some never seen before, of Ali laying bare his interiority, boxing for his life, and theorizing about power, inequality and the livelihoods and struggles of oppressed peoples.

The opening frame of "What's My Name" shows Ali explaining that should his story ever be told, he wants it done in full. So, there are no talking heads or narration, because who better to tell such a remarkable, revolutionary story than Muhammad Ali himself? His interviews and words guide us through his life, from early childhood until his final days, as he endures the bodily constraints of Parkinson's disease. Ali's famous, rhythmic one-liners, like "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," are accompanied by his critical analysis about race, white supremacy and his politics, which are global.

"What's My Name" doesn't just show the extreme bravery of Ali's activism, as he spoke expertly and passionately about the plight of black people in America and the perils of U.S. empire, but it also focuses on the immense sacrifices he made — how Ali put his life, safety and career on the line for his convictions and was punished immensely for it — marginalized and dehumanized by his own country. Ali is universally celebrated today, but like many black radical activists, he was undercut during the zenith of his life.

Powerfully, Ali understood that the white people in Louisville, Kentucky, who wouldn’t allow him to eat at a restaurant in his hometown after returning from representing (and winning for) the U.S. in the 1960 Summer Olympics, were deeply connected to the forces that wanted him to fight abroad in Vietnam. That his singular exceptionalism as an athlete could never eclipse the structures that kept the people who looked like him — at home and around the world — oppressed, exploited and stratified. This courage and analysis, shown through Fuqua's excellent direction, places Ali in line with a long tradition of black radical thinkers who thought in internationalist terms, who recognized the shared global struggles of black, brown and poor people, and stood in solidarity with them. As Ali once said, "the greatest sports title means nothing if you cannot be free." He was "The People's Champ" indeed.

But in "What's My Name," we are also gifted with hearing and learning about Ali's fears (he was initially terrified of planes), his dreams, his wonderful humor and his unparalleled self-determination. Yet, for all of Ali's fame and success, his pleasure came from simplicity. Access to clean air, farmed vegetables and fresh water mattered to him far more than any luxuries.

In an interview with Salon, Fuqua explains the power of Ali, his unmatched courage and why his story remains urgent today.

From the very first moment, the documentary is so intimate, so thoughtful, chronicling Muhammad Ali's historic wins, but also presenting this deeply humanizing portrait. I was hoping you could talk about your intention, and how you thought about telling such a grand, multi-layered story.

It's interesting because when I got the call from HBO and SpringHill [Entertainment] about making a doc about Ali — because he means so much to me and to so many other people — the first thing I said is the family OK with that?

And Lonnie [Ali] and the family were fine with it and signed off on it. So, then how do you tell the story about Muhammad Ali? The more I dug into it, I thought, well, what is greatness? What does greatness mean? Because he's the greatest of all time. What does that mean? And, we went through different conversations about that. And at one point, I looked for certain quotes from Ali. One of them was he said after fighting Joe Frazier. I believe he said it felt like death, it was so hot. You know, being beat, punched, but yet he kept getting off that stool, going back out there and fighting, Joe Frazier. And I thought what is that? What is that gene in a person that you're able to do that? Push yourself that far when you feel like you're on the brink of death.

But then as I went deeper into it, when he fought Ernie Terrell, and he got into the argument about what's my name? And I thought, only Ali can tell this story. So, when I sat down with Maverick [Carter, EP], and the team, I said that's this doc: it's about Muhammad Ali telling his own story, in his own words, if possible. If we can find unique footage, find him talking about these situations, be intimate with him so he can lead us on this journey, then that's where we're going. And that's where it started.

And that was so moving. There's no talking heads. Ali is telling his own story. What was it like to gather all the footage and what was it like for you, such a huge Ali fan, to see this footage for the first time, to hear his ideas in full?

We had over 1000 hours of footage and recordings, so that was overwhelming. And it was really, being honest with you, it was constantly fun, because he was always witty and charming. He was entertaining. He was great to look at. It was amazing to me to watch his fights because I was watching them, knowing the outcome of all of them, obviously, but still engaged in them like they were happening in front of me — right then and there. It was really pretty powerful and it was a reminder of his greatness. But what really struck me the most was how much humility he had. How humble he really was, obviously, because, as a kid, I think the first time I saw him, I think I was maybe 10.

But, I remember, just seeing this entertaining, handsome guy that all the women in my house were going crazy over and all the men were talking about "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." I was a little kid, just sort of watching this magnetic figure, but then when I was watching the footage with my editors and my team and talking about it, listening to him, now, as a grown man, I was like, "wow, this guy was really special." Not just what we think, but he was — in my opinion — he was anointed from the beginning. He was very clear and precise, thoughtful and highly intelligent.

So that's why the first time he's asked "where's your name Cassius Clay come from?" And Ali says, "You know what, I don't know, I got to look into that." To see this young, humble kid that even at that moment he's comfortable in front of the camera and he's smart enough to say "I don't know, but I'm going to look into that." So, he was special. Looking at that footage was overwhelming at times and emotional at times. But at the same time, I always walked out of there at the end of day feeling like, I got a lot of work to do in my life. The things he achieved so young — I got a lot of work to do to live up to anything close to that guy.

It's interesting you brought up the taunting — his opponents taunting his name and constantly misidentifying him as Cassius Clay rather than Muhammad Ali. His name was such an integral part of who he was. Is that what inspired the title for the documentary?

Yes. Just because, for me, we had talked about different titles, but when I saw the footage again, and I remember that, that fight, the argument. But I didn't really focus in on it. It was just a fight, you know. So everybody was talking trash, to the point where I questioned was that real or not real? But when you really look at Ali, that was very real for him. The idea that a man caught so much hell, for changing his own name, he didn't try to change anyone else's name. Change his own name. Something that belongs to him, he's got the right to do. And people would act like he did something wrong, and even his own people mistreated him and didn't want to call him Muhammad Ali. And I think that was so hurtful, and I thought, wow, that is human right. He has the right to change his name, he has the right to change his religion and everyone wanted to claim him as their own, and gave him hell for it.

It's very dehumanizing.

Absolutely. Imagine, you decide to change your name from Joe to John and everyone goes crazy. But it had a lot to do with the religion part of it. They didn't understand it and people were buying into what the FBI was selling, that the Muslims were a threat to the nation and calling them "terrorists." That's horrible.

I thought it was so intriguing that you showed Ali's kind of probing of the myths around white supremacy and that conditioning, alongside his growing and expressive confidence.  It seemed like those two things were almost connected for him. If you expose the myth of white supremacy, then he can really appreciate his own greatness too. 

The word when I think about Ali is courage. At that time it took so much courage for him to do what he did, stand on his principles. Courage doesn't mean anything if you're not putting anything on the line. If you're not willing to give up the success, willing to state your enemies, white supremacy and everything else. What you don't believe in; you don't believe in going to Vietnam and being willing to face the consequences of it, was the key for me. To show how dangerous it was. I used to always say he was one bullet away. They took out everyone around him, Martin Luther King, they killed Malcolm. He was one bullet away and this guy was very boastful and very clear about how he felt about white supremacy. Ali was so beautiful though, he knew how to give it to you with honey. Some charm, crack a joke about it, but he was very clear about it.

Yes, very clear in the way that he explained it. It was so powerful when he was coming from the Olympics in 1960 and he's like "How did I represent the U.S., at the Olympics, and I can't even eat at a restaurant in my home town." The hypocrisy of it all.

Absolutely. He was so clear. Muhammad Ali had a vision. He was a visionary... some people are aware of the importance of the moment. He was very aware of the importance of the moment that he was in. The world he was living in, at that moment, at that time, very clear about it, very aware. He knew he had to stand for something, and that is an enlightened person. I think Martin Luther King as well. People didn't just know where they stand in life, that's hard to do. He made it clear that money was not his God. God was his God. He made that very clear. You know, they couldn't buy him off. They stripped him of his belt. They took away as much as they could from the man, and he still stood by his beliefs and his principle. That's courage, through and through.

I loved seeing the footage of him and Dr. King together. I'm more familiar with his relationship with Malcolm X, but I think there are real similarities between Dr. King and Ali. As you said, people who were so scrutinized and marginalized in much of their lifetime and only later on are they more universally celebrated. For Dr. King, of course, that scrutiny was fatal. But I thought that was a really interesting comparison.

That's right, it's because these men were — and remember how young they were. That's what's really so fascinating when you go through the footage. You go, wow, these guys were in their twenties, early thirties, they were so young. They were doing so much, with so much courage and so much on the line. And they did it at a price, so you know, you think about today, that's why I'm so happy LeBron is so conscious of it. And he's doing things about it, speaking up about things, because what a platform that you have to make change and it may not happen your lifetime, but that's courage, you've got to put something on the line.

Right. And you see that in the history of black athletes, you know, it's not hard to imagine that one day there will be Colin Kaepernick documentaries, but forty years from his prime. It has to be so removed from the apex of their life and at such a cost.

It's that being sacrificed. But that's courage though, he put it on the line. Otherwise courage does not mean anything. It's easy to be brave, when you know it's dark or by yourself in a room, talking trash to somebody in a coffee shop, but to put it on the line for other people. Not even put yourself, the unselfishness of that, that's real courage.

I loved seeing the kind of fullness of the footage of Ali's fight against Joe Frazier. Even though he lost, it just showed Ali's brilliance in both his athleticism but also this scientific approach to boxing. Even well before he solidified the rope-a-dope technique. I'm wondering if your own boxing experience has informed that part of the documentary or the film more broadly.

I'd like to think so. Because you know, when you're in between those four ropes, just you and that guy — but most importantly, you understand it's a chess match, and you're constantly trying to get the other guy to help you beat him up. And you can see the brilliance in Ali because again, his vision. I mean, this guy used to beat people up going backwards. It's a very hard technique to do. According to so-called professionals back then, everything he did was unorthodox and wrong. His hands were low, he danced around. He was beautiful to watch, but he was deadly, and it was all intentional.

He would make you chase him around the ring while he was punching you in the face the whole time. In boxing, these guys have great vision, because you got to be able to see an opening, and when he's got an opening he would just tatter you, like a machine gun punch. I do it every day, I'm around fighters all day, you really see the brilliance of it when you are around it all the time. You understand the science of it much more and the sacrifice.

When you do it, even when if you get in there and just move around, shadow box, it's exhausting, it's hard. Most people can't do that for three minutes, jump rope for three minutes, move around the ring for three minutes and now imagine being under the hot lights, thousands of people, sucking all that energy out. Your adrenaline is going, and you got to go out there to try to fight someone who is trying to knock your head off.

Right. I can't. (Laugh.)

Yeah, right?

No, I can't. The last scene of Ali returning to the Olympics to light the Olympic flame, but he's retired now, with Parkinson's disease and it was so powerful, you become almost emotional watching it. What did you want viewers to take away from that scene?

Oh, man, that is like my favorite scene in the movie.

Is it?

Yeah, because to me it sums him up, in a way. You got President Clinton, Shaq, you know anybody that's anybody was there really, at the Olympics. No one knew who it was, who was going to come out — those people didn't anyways. And here comes Ali, shaking and he's holding the torch and you're rooting for him. He puts the torch in the air and the crowd goes crazy. I loved this moment.

But if you watch it, then he does it again (laughing) and when I see that, I get so excited and go "That's Ali”, he's still fighting. Parkinson's still didn't beat him. Right, he's shaking, you're just praying, don't drop that torch. You don't want to see him fail ever. And not only did he do it, then he did it again, and to me that's Muhammad Ali. Always goes beyond what you expect him to.

It was so moving. Why is Ali's story especially important to tell right now?

Well, a lot of reasons. The thing with Muhammad Ali that I walk away, that I hope people walk away with, is that, he was sharp enough to be in the moment, he was sharp enough to grow in the moment and grow from the moment and evolve from these moments and ultimately come out saying: "What does it mean in this life if you don't do anything for anybody else?"

By Rachel Leah

MORE FROM Rachel Leah