What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali (Prime, Queen’s Birthday, 9.30pm) has no new interviews featuring his friends or pontificating commentators. Instead, Fuqua, who is best known for his 2001 film Training Day, uses the plentiful archive footage, photographs and audio from throughout the champ’s life.
The documentary is a triumph of editing, both pictures and sound, and Fuqua places Ali within the political context of the time, such as the deep wrongness of Olympic gold champion Cassius Clay returning home from his triumph in Rome in 1960 and being turned away from a segregated Louisville restaurant.
Ali may have been known as a motormouth, but in many amusing and pithy interviews, he used his fame to call out racism and injustice. He lived through the civil-rights era and, famously, refused to go to Vietnam to fight. He met such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr, but, Fuqua says, his conversion to Islam and the change of his name from Clay to Ali was only one of his “several fights”.
“In the ring, spiritually, outside of the ring and with Parkinson’s,” Fuqua told the Hollywood Reporter. “There’s all these fights. That was his life.”
Certainly, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, was seen by the US Government as a dangerous political organisation, and Ali’s mentor, Malcolm X, was a controversial figure.
Many people, even those in the boxing community, including heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell, refused to call him Muhammad Ali. There is footage of a tense interview with US television sports commentator Howard Cosell in which they nearly come to blows.
Fuqua takes the name of the documentary from the Ali-Terrell bout in 1967, in which Ali can been seen pummelling his opponent while repeating, “What’s my name?”
But it’s not all about the politics. Fuqua even found footage of Ali’s early amateur days, when his boyhood boxing matches where televised on a local show called Tomorrow’s Champions.
He was a sensation before and after he turned professional in 1960, but especially after he took the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964.
“This film is a lot about sports being a metaphor for something greater,” says Fuqua. “It’s all about getting knocked down, getting back up. Winning some games. Losing some games. Trying to find greatness within yourself.”
This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.