What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali enters a crowded field. HBO, which will premiere the two-part documentary May 14th, released the legal drama Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight back in 2013, and in the documentary category, Leon Gast gave us When Were Kings, one of the great hero stories ever told, back in 1996. Antoine Fuqua’s latest addition to the Ali canon runs 165 minutes and attempts a comprehensive retelling of the Greatest’s life.
Ali makes evaluating any movie about him impossible. What’s My Name chooses the path of archival footage, letting the audience sit beside Ali for the full length of the movie. To spend time with Ali is to love Ali. I left my viewing of What’s My Name filled with affection for one of the most charismatic figures in history.
The strength of What’s My Name is getting out Ali’s way. No talking heads appear, and most of the movie’s analysis comes from Ali himself. Fuqua’s documentary focuses less on the cultural significance of anyone Ali battle, whether it be against Sonny Liston, the Supreme Court, or Parkinson’s, than that of the full arc. The purpose of What’s My Name is to put everything in one place, for showing to those who didn’t live through it.
Without talking head contextualization, the doc shifts the emphasis to Ali’s showmanship. His media highlights cannot be contained to a single movie, but What’s My Name finds several of his most visually-stimulating TV appearances. Fuqua makes it easy to draw a throughline from the Ali of the early ‘70s, chopping wood for the camera on his rural Pennsylvania training camp, to the Ali of the ‘90s, fooling 60 Minutes into thinking he’s about to have a violent episode directed toward Ed Bradley. Objective as the movie remains, its argument lies in Ali’s creation of a new kind of celebrity culture by force of conviction and wit. The debate over his place as the greatest boxer to ever live is fodder for other Ali docs.
This choice necessarily shortchanges fights that could have, and in many cases have, warranted standalone films of their own. In a vacuum, a viewer of What’s My Name could assign equal weight to the Liston, Foreman, Spinks, and Holmes fights. What’s My Name doesn’t take much of a position on the multiple rises and falls of Ali’s career, or the significance of each fight in the greater narrative arc. It’s happy to let When We Were Kings keep control over the Rumble in the Jungle. Instead, What’s My Name seeks to educate, to demonstrate the live-or-die seriousness of two decades’ worth of Ali fights to anyone under 40.
The footage the movie repackages is, after all, urgent. What’s My Name assumes you know the great lengths Ali went to do away with Cassius Clay and the legal, financial, and cultural hits he took refusing the Draft. What if wants you convinced of is the magic of watching Ali go through it, the power he had over a press unprepared for someone so sure of himself.
It’s strange to watch Ali’s life smushed into 2.5 hours, given the recent history of sports documentary. O.J. Simpson: Made in America ran nearly eight hours played continuously, and ESPN’s 10-part Michael Jordan project is on the way. HBO Documentaries has always been a different kind of institution, one that believes a holistic biography can be kept within the normal confines of a TV movie. Still, if anyone deserves the top-to-bottom unpacking of a life that Made in America let us know is possible, it’s Muhammad Ali.
What’s My Name delivers on its purpose: collecting Ali’s greatest hits. The HBO documentary may be little more than an explainer, but it’s an excellent one.