From the archives: A victim of America—Muhammad Ali and the war against terrorism

When Hollywood bosses were asked by the Bush administration to do their bit in the 'war on terrorism', they signed up eagerly – and they came up with the notion of getting much-loved former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali to promote US policy. Mike Marqusee tells the story (first published March 2002)

November 28, 2014 · 12 min read

1024px-Muhammad_Ali_and_Jimmy_Carter According to the New York Times, studio executives are convinced that ‘Mr. Ali will have special credibility with an audience believed to be deeply suspicious of the United States.’

The ironies here are many and intricate. It was precisely the damage allegedly wrought by Ali to ‘the perception of America around the world’ that piqued the CIA and FBI into subjecting him to years of surveillance. The day after he first won the heavyweight title, in February 1964, he stood before the press, with Malcolm X at his side, and announced that he was a member of what was then probably the most reviled organisation in the USA, the black separatist Nation of Islam. In so doing, the brash twenty- two year old loudmouth was repudiating Christianity in a predominantly Christian country. He was repudiating the integrationist agenda of the civil rights movement, then at the height of its prestige. Above all, he was repudiating his US national identity in favour of a global, diasporic one.

Having been taught by Malcolm that ‘you are not an American, you are a victim of America’, this young celebrity with the wealth of the world at his feet chose to throw in his lot with the despised ‘Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America’ – reaching out to the unknown masses who shared his grievance against the United States.

Soon Ali visited Africa, where he hobnobbed with Nkrumah and Nasser, both high on the State Department hate-list. Two years later, faced with the draft, he declared, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,’ and was denounced as a traitor and coward by politicians, pundits and those paragons of public interest, the boxing authorities. He explained his thinking to a sympathetic reporter: ‘Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.’

In 1967, Ali refused induction into the US military, was stripped of his title, barred from the ring, convicted of draft evasion and given the maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. Released on bail appending appeal, and with his passport confiscated, he spent the next three and half years in a kind of internal exile – appearing at college campuses and talk shows, making his case for his right to conscientious objection, and to the heavyweight title.

Blurred vision

At a time when popular perceptions in the USA are probably more divergent from popular perceptions elsewhere than in living memory, it’s important to remember that, until the mid-1970s, Muhammad Ali was more reviled than admired in his native land, and enjoyed far more respect abroad. By refusing to ‘go 10 thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people,’ he had put his money, and much more, where his mouth was. It was an act of solidarity and sacrifice that secured for Ali a uniquely international following. It is why Hollywood’s patriotic moguls want him as their mouthpiece. Ali’s totemic value lies precisely in the globally-known fact that he spectacularly defied the US establishment, risking jail in the process.

Since 11 September, members of an emboldened US right wing have repeatedly proclaimed the final defeat of their 1960s’ antagonists. The forces that made America ‘weak’ (in their view) have been purged from the body politic by the trauma of a massive terrorist attack and the apparent success of the military response. Yet strangely, in this moment of triumph, when they want to sell their freshly confirmed global domination to the populations they bestride, they turn to that archetypal figure of 1960s-style disloyalty, Muhammad Ali.

Of course, the genial Ali was long ago re-appropriated to the American fold as a depoliticised icon of personal courage. The makers of Ali, the $105 million biopic starring Will Smith, promised to restore the controversial edge to their hero. The film was in the can well before 11 September, and one can easily imagine the growing discomfort of studio bosses as they contemplated marketing this celebratory tale of a black American who converts to Islam and then refuses to serve his country in time of war.

Despite a strong opening on Christmas Day, the long-gestated epic soon foundered at the domestic box office, pushed aside by fantasy blockbusters and easily overtaken by the unblushingly jingoistic Black Hawk Down, the Boy’s Own account of the grim 1993 US foray into Somalia. ‘It’s the biggest Martin Luther King opening weekend ever,’ gushed Sony Pictures’ marketing president, referring to BHD’s big takings over the national holiday named for the champion of non-violence and scorching critic of US foreign policy.

The customary absence of any hint of irony in the corporate cheerleading, as much as the success of Black Hawk Down itself, says a great deal about the current mood in the USA. An amnesiac culture is being exploited to generate popular enthusiasm for overseas military action. How much easier to channel national rage into aggression against little known and heavily demonized foreign enemies when the fine distinctions between image and substance, fictional recreation and historical reality, have been for so long persistently undermined.

Black thought down

In the half-light of this permanent present, commercial ill-timing is not the only problem facing the Ali film. Director Michael Mann has meticulously reproduced the surface veneer of the time and place, bur has supplied so little explanatory context that viewers not familiar with the period may wonder what the fuss was all about. The care lavished on sets and locations, the attention to period detail, the rich array of sights and sounds are constant pleasures, but too often the only ones. Despite (or because) of the presence of five writers on the screen credits, the film is under-written, as is so much Hollywood product these days. Although the champ’s refusal to fight in Vietnam is portrayed as heroic, there’s a reluctance to scrutinize the politics of the war or the movement against it.

Received wisdom would have it that the way to ‘popularise’ a political subject like Ali is to focus on the personal drama and keep the arguments in the background. But in this case, at least, the received wisdom is wrong. The best way to have led inexperienced viewers into the political terrain would have been to let Ali speak for himself, as he did with such verve, wit, intelligence and uncompromising commitment in the 1960s. Some of the liveliest scenes in the film are those in which Smith carries off a note-perfect imitation of Ali’s press conferences and TV interviews. These are funny, biting and surreal, both political and personal, and they were the only moments in the film to raise a laugh at the press screening. Apart from these scenes, and when he is doing his stuff (convincingly) in the ring, Smith’s approach to the role is honourable but too solemn. The impish mischief that energized Ali’s early years hardly appears, and the anger is mostly bottled up.

Despite some juggling of the sequence of events, Ali is largely faithful to facts. However, it engages in a telling sleight of hand when it comes to the detail of Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam. In the film, Malcolm (adroitly played by Mario Van Peebles) says that Elijah Muhammad suspended him from the organisation because of his desire to support the civil rights movement in the wake of the murder of four children in the firebombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church. In fact, Malcolm was suspended because he chose to place the recent traumatic assassination of John F Kennedy in the context of US intervention in the Congo and Vietnam – and to describe it, to the shock of nearly everyone in the country at the time, as a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ Had that statement been included in the film, after 11 September, it certainly would have wound up on the cutting room floor. But well before then, it would seem, there were certain views of the United States’ relation to the outside world that even more liberal elements in the American mainstream could not come to terms with.

The reluctance of Ali to engage with ideas, fear of hard-edged politics and preference for image over context may all be typically Hollywood, but they end up undermining the audience-engaging qualities the film-makers sought. The point is inadvertently confirmed by a comparison with a handful of scenes in William Klein’s newly re-released documentary, The Greatest. For an intensely dramatic, translucent explication of what Ali meant in his early years, it will be hard to beat Klein’s brief footage of Malcolm X talking direct to camera. Ali addicts, who relish any footage of the man in his prime doing almost anything, will feel compelled to see the film, but it’s an amorphous, unkempt assemblage, and any unifying theme has to be supplied by the viewer. Even so, it re-emphasises the challenge that faced Michael Mann and his team. It’s hard to improve on an original like Ali, whose raw reality as a confused young man wrestling haphazardly with huge issues is more complex, more political, more entertaining and more inspiring than the retrospectively revered hero of destiny Mann and Smith offer.

Return of the king

Both Ali and The Greatest find their inevitable and irresistible climaxes in the Rumble in the Jungle, which is the subject of the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, still the best Ali movie. In 1974 Ali returned to Africa to face the formidable champion George Foreman in what was wisely assumed to be a futile last effort to regain the title that had been prised from him because of his political convictions. In all three films, the moment when Ali, after soaking up round after round of brutal punishment, unexpectedly turns the tables and dumps Foreman on the mat retains the power to make the hair on your neck bristle. No matter how many times I see it, in how many forms, the scene always makes me want to leap up and join in the jubilant celebrations that followed, in the stadium, on the streets of Kinshasa, and around the world. It was the kind of fairy-tale vindication—of an individual, the principles he stood for, and his myriad supporters everywhere—that would seem hopelessly contrived if it had been created merely to bolster a fiction, if one didn’t know that the suffering and the ostracism and the world-churning events that led up to it were only too real.

Yet in that moment of supreme triumph, the causes and the constituencies Ali represented were being compromised and appropriated by alien forces. The Rumble in the Jungle was staged under the aegis of the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko (only deposed in 1997), and ushered Don King into the heights of big-time boxing (he’s still there). Both men indulged in ‘black power’ rhetoric to disguise their cynical exploitation of black people.

The social movements that had driven Ali forward – the African-American freedom struggle and the anti-war campaigns were fragmenting and receding. Ali’s embrace of his African patrimony was no longer controversial. Indeed, the Rumble in the Jungle helped alert the US-based entertainment industry to the potential commercial value of both ‘blackness’ and ‘African-ness’. Ali’s career had taught the corporate whiz-kids that it was possible to make big profits by commodifying rebellion. But as both Ali, the film, and Ali’s planned role in the upcoming publicity blitz for the war on terrorism confirm, even the most magnificent images of resistance forfeit their power when severed from their moorings in history; torn from the context of social struggle that generates them, they lose their meaning and resonance.

In keeping with the culture of collective amnesia, no one is reminding anyone that this will not be the first rime Ali has consented to act as an overseas representative of the US government. In 1980, at Jimmy Carter’s behest, he revisited Africa in a doomed attempt to drum up support for the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics, a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Once upon a time, Muhammad Ali toured the world as a defiantly unofficial ambassador for a dissident America. He spoke for a nation-within-a-nation reaching out to and making common cause with others in foreign lands. But today, as in 1980, he is likely to have little impact as an official ambassador, and presumably apologist, for the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. The American voices that have crossed borders and touched large global constituencies have been the passionately unofficial ones – earthy singers, demotic writers, political prophets or fast-talking heavyweight boxers. Muffle them in the Stars and Stripes, and the rest of the world soon turns off.

That US propagandists seem unaware of this reality (their 1950s forebears fighting the Cold War by cultural proxy, exporting jazz and abstract art, were more sophisticated) is another symptom of the narcissism of today’s US elite – and of the national self-image they are currently selling, with such apparent success, to their fellow Americans.

Mike Marqusee is the author of ‘Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties’; picture credit Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

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