There’s a weight that hangs over “City of Ali,” a documentary that remembers the formative years that he spent there and the glorious funeral that Louisville threw its native son, Muhammad Ali, when he died in 2016.
It’s a film that celebrates his life, his “citizen of the world” and role model status attained through his public persona and civil rights activism, and details the lengths Louisville went to in order to honor him upon his death at age 74, in 2016, a man lauded in “the Louisville he helped create.”
The weight is the death of Breonna Taylor, the protests that sprang out of her shooting and the deaths, at the hands of police across America, of other men and women of color. That dampens, in ways the filmmakers could not have foreseen, an upbeat film that leans heavily on the mayor’s memories of how that funeral came about, and a Louisville PD spokesman’s testimony about the scale of the event which, like Ali himself, was larger than life.
Addressing Taylor’s death briefly, in an epilogue and mentioning, in the closing credits, that some of the still photographs of the Ali funeral used in the film were taken by a man killed in the nationwide protests about institutional racism and police violence, is a thoughtful response. But it doesn’t take away the feeling that the timing for this documentary is simply wrong.
And that’s a pity. Because that day in July of 2016, it wasn’t just the sporting world that paused, as ESPN devoted itself to round-the-clock live coverage, as CNN and news organizations from around the world captured the eulogies and the 20 mile long route the funeral procession through the city, winding into the West Louisville Ali grew up in.
Testimonial after testimonial in the film speaks of a city “united” by this event, a long-planned “teachable moment” envisioned by the champ which only grew bigger and grander right up until the day of the funeral.
Yet we have all the evidence we need that it didn’t last, didn’t create change.
Filmmaker Graham Shelby talked to Ali’s children and his widow, to neighbors, his childhood pastor and legions of Louisvillians — academics, fans, friends — as well as eyewitnesses to Ali’s impact on the culture. Shelby paints a loving portrait of the segregated city that gave birth to the man, shaped his ideology, taught him to box and made him speak out on the racism he witnessed growing up.
He was inspired to box by the loss of his treasured Schwinn bicycle, marching into a gym at 12 and saying “I’m gonna whip the thief that stole my bike.”
He had his first encounter with the American brand of Islam taught by Elijah Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam” in Louisville.
And when it came time to leave a permanent mark on the city, The Muhammad Ali Center came into being, a multicultural complex and museum designed to carry on his legacy as well as remember his life.
But as the city’s white mayor, Greg Fischer, relates here, “Muhammad’s history was VERY complicated in Louisville.”
No, he didn’t actually toss his Olympic gold medal in boxing into the Ohio River. But the “myth” was certainly believable, considering the racial climate in that southern state in the early 1960s.
The film remembers the gyms and trainers where then-Cassius Clay Jr. learned to box, and the rich white shakers and movers who invested in him and backed his career, and cringed when he converted to Islam and refused to be inducted into the Army.
We tend to gloss over just how much he was hated when the comically bragging boxer turned serious to denounce the Vietnam War years before public opinion turned against it. But Shelby’s film makes sure to remind us.
Here’s talk show host and ’60s media intellectual David Susskind practically spitting out his words denouncing Ali. “I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man…He’s a disgrace.“
But here too are historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others, recalling his “titanic personality” and celebration of being “Black and pretty” at a time when Black America wasn’t letting itself think that way.
And here’s talk show host and friend Dick Cavett remembering Ali’s death.
“It was as if Mount Rushmore fell down.”
The funeral of an athlete and public figure who was, for years, “the most famous man in the world,” and certainly the best-known, was an extravaganza that did Louisville proud.
But it’s impossible to remember that without thinking of what has happened there since. The city and the champ and “City of Ali” deserve better.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Muhammad Ali, Lonnie Ali, Rasheda Ali, Dick Cavett, Hannah Storm, Pastor Ahmaad Edmund, Asaad Ali, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Allan Houston, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mayor Greg Fischer
Credits: Directed by Graham Shelby. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:21