City Of Ali

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

City Of Ali
"It lays the emotion on so thickly that now, at a distance from the death, it begins to feel uncomfortably hagiographic. It's a relief when speakers recall snippets of Ali's humour, always essential to keeping the rest in proportion."

Louisville, Kentucky, is known for three things: the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Muhammad Ali. It's impossible to visit the place without being aware of the latter. They named the airport after him. In the weeks leading up to his death on the third of June, 2016, a city-wide plan was put in place for fear that everything would descend into chaos when the moment came.

With that cultivated vanity that always contributed to his charm, Ali told them that he wanted his memorial service to be held in an arena. And it was.

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There have been many documentaries about Ali but relatively little treatment of his early life or his relationship with the city where he grew up. It's a city where, for many years, he was treated as a second class citizen and excluded from public facilities because of the colour of his skin, and his refusal to bow down to racism - along with his conscientious objection to the Vietnam war - made him numerous enemies, but today he is almost universally loved. Graham Shelby's film tells the story of his connection with Louisville at the same time as capturing the evens that took place after his death and the tributes made to him.

With more than 100,000 people converging on the city for the occasion, there's a lot to cover. Shelby had no apparent access to family members around the time of the funeral, which is quite understandable, but we get footage of speeches by big names like Bill Clinton and Billy Crystal. The film's strength, however, comes from the way Shelby has included the stories of ordinary people whose lives were touched by Ali and his work, from the local florist who provides rose petals for the memorial service to a schoolgirl who talks about the way his story helped her to feel confident in herself (his vanity, after all, was not mere play. "I'm black and I'm pretty" was a revolutionary statement in its time). We also see notes left by fans who travelled to pay tribute, including one addressed "on behalf of all your Iranian fans."

The coming together of different religious groups in a multi-faith service is very much in keeping with how Ali lived his life and in that particular year, when divisive rhetoric was been spouted across the media by candidates in the presidential election race, it had particular import, but it's the little stories about how the boxer practised kindness and inclusion that really stick, from his support for local events to his unexpected appearance at parties. His brother, who also has Parkinson's disease, talks about how he lived with his illness and the signals that sent.

The difficulty with all this is that whilst it never strains the bounds of credulity - at least not for those who paid attention during Ali's life - it lays the emotion on so thickly that now, at a distance from the death, it begins to feel uncomfortably hagiographic. It's a relief when speakers recall snippets of Ali's humour, always essential to keeping the rest in proportion. One doesn't want to lose sight of the man because of the idol. The film becomes much more interesting when it burrows back into the past to present us with family photographs and anecdotes from people who knew him before he became the greatest. We hear the story of how his new red bicycle was stolen and how, when he told the white sheriff that he planned to find and pummel the thief, that sheriff reacted not as one might fear a white law officer might to a black youth, but asked him if he knew how to fight, helping to inspire his remarkable journey.

There are indirect reflections here on what it meant to be a be a black family struggling under segregation in that era, and on the local culture which remained important to the young fighter, helping to keep him grounded as his career took off. The present day material is there to remind us that many problems from that time have not gone away, but in depicting the memorial, Shelby celebrates a sense of togetherness that verges on the transcendent and communicates something of why we feel a need for shared heroes. Ali's passing saddened people around the world, but in the social milieu of Louisville, his influence will take a long, long time to fade.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2021
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A documentary about Muhammad Ali's funeral and what he meant to the people of his home town, Louisville, Kentucky

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