Ever since brain-trauma-induced Parkinson’s slowed down his elegant body and trickster tongue, it’s hard to watch Muhammad Ali box. But that’s only because it was so exhilarating to watch as he talked, moved, and interacted with people—especially kids—in his prime.
There are some long boxing sequences in Muhammad Ali, The Long-Lost Movie, but mostly we just get to tag along as the champ goes about his daily life, training (the sight of him skipping rope is a beautiful thing), talking to people, or overseeing the workers who are realizing his vision of a country retreat that he describes with the ghost of a grin as being fit for “old Jesse James, Belle Starr—American outlaws.”
Anton Perich shot the footage in 1973 and ’74, when Ali was preparing for his Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman. Perich first went to Ali’s Deerlake, Pennsylvania camp with Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie, who had contacted Ali because they were interested in his poems. The two invited Perich, who was shooting a lot of video at the time for a groundbreaking underground cable TV show here in New York, to document one of their meetings.
“I thought I was going to go there for 16 minutes or something, so I used the camera I used for my TV show,” Perich told me. “I never had any tripod or anything, and my camera was always really bad.” Perich visited the camp several more times over the next few months, collecting hours’ worth of half-inch black-and-white video on his Sony Portapak. He played some of the footage on his TV show, but most sat in boxes for years, some of it getting lost in moves and the rest probably deteriorating somewhat. Last year he started going through the tapes, digitizing the half-inch videos and editing them into this two-hour movie.
The result looks so raw that Ali breaks out of one of the monologues he delivers to Bockris and Wylie to deliver an impromptu rap about it: “I like your interview and I admire your style, but your camera’s so cheap I won’t talk to you for a while.” And if the visuals are mostly pretty crude, the sound is worse, sometimes fading out so much that it’s hard to hear the champ (hopefully the ace projectionists at Anthology will be able to compensate for that). As Perich puts it: “You have the most sophisticated mind and body imaginable in front of you and you’re capturing it with the most primitive instrument imaginable.”
The film opens with a lot of footage of Wylie and Bockris (I only know it’s them because Perich told me, since there are no subtitles or voiceover to tell us what’s going on; Bockris is the one who looks like Adrien Brody), touring the camp and talking to Ali, whose soft, quick voice covers a lot of ground. His interviewers react with awe as he reads poems and sayings that sound like the aphorisms you’d find in a fortune cookie: indisputably true, but not necessarily earthshaking (“The man who has no imagination stands on the earth. He has no wings; he cannot fly”). But the depth and originality of his thinking emerge as he talks about things like how African-Americans need to become self-sufficient or the world of hurt he sees in store for the U.S. (He compares the nation to a poor person pretending to be rich, someone with a refrigerator full of food who will be able to keep up the pretense of being just fine only until that stash runs out.)
Amazingly approachable considering that he may have been the most famous man in the world at the time, Ali gives the filmmakers all the time and space they need. He’s just as generous with the people—especially the women and kids—who hang on him like pilot fish on a whale as he moves through the grounds of his camp, standing shyly beside him as if they can hardly believe their own fortune or chanting his name like a prayer as they vie for his attention.
Ali could have done and been almost anything (and he knows it too: he’s not bullshitting when he calls himself The Greatest). Except that he couldn't, of course, given the time and place and skin he was born in. What he made of boxing, one of few roads to fame and fortune open to a poor black kid in apartheid Louisville in the 50s, was amazing, but what a price he paid. Perich’s found footage of the great man in his prime is a piece of American history. It’s also an aptly human-scaled tribute to a champion who has always been—first and foremost, fully and deeply—a human being.