Our American art is far behind our national reality. This is because people are more interested in "positive" imagery than any sort of representation that has the complexity of human life. Recently it was said at a conference on black film that more art can be seen in documentaries than in fictional studio films. This became quite clear to me yet again as I looked at the DVD of "Facing Ali," a remarkable documentary about Muhammad Ali that was released last year.
I missed it when the film arrived, but I am happy that I saw it at the video store.
"Facing Ali" achieves the remarkable by shooting for the humanity realities that are almost never examined when anything is now said about the former champion. This is the kind of work that fits perfectly into what has become of film in our time, where the art of moving pictures is now as constantly available as books used to be but movies were not.
Because Malcolm X, who converted Ali, has been canonized, but the Nation of Islam still remains beyond criticism, we almost never see or hear anything truthful said about either the racist cult or the mouthpiece many think was murdered on assignment. Malcolm X is now considered something of a militant saint, but, for all of the slavish elevation of the man and the quotations attributed to him, little is said about the denunciation he made during the last months of his life.
This is usually no longer mentioned. Part of what makes "Facing Ali" such a good film is that it does not miss out on the truth of Ali's connection to the cult that Malcolm X bitterly attacked after he went to Mecca and claimed to have learned that he had been misled and deceived by Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad was his former mentor whom he accused of philandering and fathering eight children by teenage girls.
One of the reasons that almost nothing is said, especially by black writers, politicians and newspeople, is that Louis Farrakhan scared the pants off them. He did this when a man sounding exactly like Farrakhan was heard on tape threatening Washington Post writer Milton Coleman with death. The threat came because Coleman reported statements Jesse Jackson made in private about Jews that were taken as anti-Semitic.
That is not what makes the film the fully great thing that it is, however. This is done by the men who fought Ali, who suffered at his hands whenever he had the chance to belittle them as servants of the "enemies" of black aspirations, as opposed to himself, the race hero. The essential HBO documentary "Thrilla in Manila" makes it clear how much Ali manipulated his followers.
This was done in order to elevate himself and make things very bad for Joe Frazier, whom he described in racist terms that would have been unacceptable from anybody white. Ali was too narcissistic and too much of a hustler to avoid making their fights into racial confrontations in which Frazier was condescendingly insulted for serving his white "masters."
As much jive as Ali represented and as he brought to the table, he comes through the documentary as what he actually was. We see him as a giant of a talent, a man whose courage in the ring is beyond doubt, and a complicated figure who was neither beyond kindness nor empathy nor the kind of wit in which he always played the role of an irresponsible court jester made important by the politics of the time and his almost matchless gifts as a boxer.
What is most overwhelming about "Facing Ali," however, is the human grandeur of those men who won or lost fights to him. The size of feeling and the depths of understanding had by figures such as Joe Frazier, George Chuvalo, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and the truly philosophical George Foreman will startle those who might think that his opponents were as intellectually limited as Ali was and probably still is.
In a time as mesmerized by surfaces as ours, we are not accustomed to seeing men of this depth and soulfulness in the athletic arena. Today's athletes seem no deeper than any other pop stars, from film to hip-hop.
So this documentary is another testament to the essential understanding at the center of our founding documents: Greatness can come from anywhere, and talent is free of color, religion and class.
By the end of the film, one might feel that Muhammad Ali is much like Secretariat, the phenomenal racehorse. What he could do and what he actually did is much more important than anything that he actually thought or actually said. Only a man incontestably outstanding in some essential way could evoke such tellingly great emotion in these spiritually elegant examples of the species at some inarguable peaks.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.