Apropos of nothing in particular, this new documentary on the heavyweight champ fastidiously focuses on the first decade or so of the boxing demigod’s very public career, from his 1960 Olympic gold medal in Rome and first heavyweight championship in 1964 through to his refusal of the draft and the ascension of his criminal case to the Supreme Court. The history being vetted has everything to do with the former Cassius Clay’s sincere involvement with the Church of Islam, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and Bill Siegel’s portrait makes the well-worn case for Ali being, perhaps inadvertently, one of the Civil Rights era’s most potent figures.
He was also, as Jerry Lewis is quoted, “the damnedest showman that ever lived,” and more than one film (including 1996’s When We Were Kings) is needed to capture the man’s volcanic star power and media-taunting nerve. Produced by veteran Chicago doc outfit Kartemquin (and correspondingly bullshit-free), Siegel’s archive-and-talking-heads narrative revels in forgotten details—like Ali, during his suspension from boxing, appearing in an Off Broadway musical about slavery, the taped footage from which is eye-popping. If you weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to believe American celebrities ever burned this bright.