Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1974)
Directed by William KleinApril 19 at the Museum of Art and Design, part of its William Klein retrospective
A masterful study of a man so mean he makes medicine sick, Klein’s portrait of Ali persuasively argues for its subject’s status as one of the key cultural figures of his time. But Klein is not content to merely glorify the three-time undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (described by one interviewee as “the independent hipster, the jazzman turned boxer”); through an exhilarating medley of press conference performances (themselves syntheses of spoken word, stand-up comedy and old-fashioned shit-talking) and invaluable fly-on-the-wall footage, Klein bobs and weaves together a doc that miraculously manages to attend to nearly everything Ali represented.
Focused exclusively on the lead-ups to and aftermaths of three of Ali’s defining bouts—the two fights with Sonny Liston in 1964 and 65, and the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in 74—Klein reveals himself to be as concerned with the sociopolitical climate surrounding Ali as he is with the champ himself. Footage of the three fights is largely omitted in favor of a more concentrated engagement with their historical contexts: Klein associates Ali/Liston I with LBJ's electoral victory over Barry Goldwater; Ali/Liston II, with the assassination of Malcolm X (making a remarkable cameo, filmed shortly after his break with the Nation of Islam, in which he weighs in on Ali’s revolutionary potential); and the “Rumble,” with Mobutu and his astonishing cult of personality. (A French newspaper’s top headline after Ali’s upset victory over Foreman: “Une nouvelle victoire du Mobutisme!”) The black-and-white footage from 64-65 tonally anticipates Dont Look Back, the cinéma verité profile of Ali’s rock-and-roll equivalent, Bob Dylan; the footage from Zaire 74 is vividly colorful, rich with dirt, sweat, foliage, pro-Mobutu propaganda and Foreman’s Funkadelic overalls.
But apart from all the feats of physical and rhetorical prowess and all the star power—The Beatles!—Klein does take care to problematize the mythology of Ali by spotlighting both the (white) Louisville Syndicate that bankrolled and profited from his ascent as well as the sports betting interests that might have determined the results of some of his most seminal victories. Call it “A Portrait of the Pugilist as a Cog in the Machine (Despite Himself).”