According to Sports Illustrated, there wasn't any 20th century figure on whom more ink was expended than Muhammad Ali, the repeat heavyweight champion boxer and one of the most important civil rights heroes of the '60s. In more recent years, that fascination with Ali seems to have turned to another medium—and one which truly showcases his charisma: documentary film.
But even with a half dozen feature-length documentaries about Ali, that is not enough. The man had charisma and, with brute force, moved forward history. He truly is dynamic, fun-spirited and historically important enough to warrant this many cinematic examinations—if not more.
Joining this canon is When Ali Came to Ireland, an easy going hour long documentary about a single 1972 match that Ali fought in Ireland. Although this fight was little more than a money-maker for Ali—an odd 10-day trip to Ireland and a footnote in his career—the footage and interviews provide a great deal of depth about his generosity and intelligence.
At this point in his career, Ali had only recently returned to boxing after he was banned in 1967 for dramatically refusing the Army draft, bolding telling the press that "no Vietcong ever called me nigger." Stripped of his boxing license and passport, Ali spent his prime languishing, until a landmark 8-0 Supreme Court decision underscoring his religious freedom officially returned his boxing license.
At this point in his life, Ali is clearly shaken after being slammed by years of racism, public doubters (like Howard Cosell) and legal constraints; yet Ali is as fast-talking as ever. Rare interview footage from Irish TV shows him remarkably unguarded. In what is one of Ali's most raw interviews, he is stretched out in a chair to the point of nearly slipping to the floor, but when asked about his mixed race (his great-grandfather was Irish), he snaps to attention with a soliloquy about slavery, racism and rape that is equally quippy and angry in tone.
But as eminently watchable as Ali is, the documentary's secondary characters nearly steal the show—in particular, Alvin "Blue" Lewis, a droopy-eyed ex-convict from Detroit who learned to box while in prison. A year after the fight with Ali, Lewis stopped to help a priest with a broken-down car. In checking out the car, the battery sparked and splashed acid into his eye, nearly rendering him blind and ending his boxing career. Even so, he has spent the subsequent four decades using boxing as a means to reform street kids.
As much as When Ali Came To Ireland is about boxing, ultimately the film is more a tale about two strong-willed black men who withstood the hard punches life landed on them—and about redemption and generosity.
BendFilm Festival is fast approaching, a weekend celebration that for the past 10 years has brought together some of the nation's best independent films and filmmakers to our theaters. During the next few issues, the Source staff will be reviewing docs, shorts and feature films in writhing anticipation of the weekend long festival. BendFilm takes place Oct. 10-13. For the full festival lineup and to purchase tickets, visit bendfilm.org. And stay tuned to the Source for our continuing film reviews.