The Art of Floating Like a Butterfly: Unpacking Will Smith's Alias Muhammad Ali

Of all this year’s cinematic dramas, which crafted superb sports spectacle while largely delivering how-to life lessons and domestic dramas about personal and social alienation and reformation, a rare few landed the punches as cleanly as Ali. Will Smith rendered one of his best ever transformative performances as the boxing legend Muhammad Ali in a film that tracked the great athlete’s triumphant and mythic arc inside the RING and the reversal of his fortunes outside of it in combat with the society around him and his own mind.

Step Into the RING: The Brilliance Behind "Ali"

And what lies at its centre is not just an image of the body of Muhammad Ali, but a reflection upon the spirit. Smith’s performance is of Muhammad Ali: his stardust and his woundedness and his indomitable will. It is a performance that goes beyond ‘imitation’ because it touches upon what it was to be Muhammad Ali, why he became transcendent not just as a boxer but as a cultural figure.

From Cassius to Ali: A Journey of Transformation

The film opens in his early days, when Cassius Clay first became Muhammad Ali, and Ali describes the rite of passage as both an interior and exterior act of self-definition. It was a time of personal reckoning and public proclamation when he converted to Islam and refused to fight in the Vietnam War. It was a time when Ali spoke truth to power.

Dancing Feet and Poetic Punches

The iconic fights of Ali’s career – notably his wins over Sonny Liston, and the beautifully choreographed Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman – are rendered as ballet, with every move, every punch and every dance around the RING highlighting Ali’s tactical genius. In these sequences in particular, Smith shines at his brightest, both exhilarating and exasperating us with his superhuman finesse. Ali comes close to being one of those tired, testosterone-fuelled sports movies with a superiority complex.

Beyond the RING: Ali's Larger Fight

Though the details of the physical confrontations are scrupulously rendered, ‘Ali’ is less a boxer’s life than it is an extension of the socio-political context of the decade. His relationships with Malcolm X and Sam Cooke and others are treated not as footnotes but as significant personal friendships that informed his worldview.

Facing Down Challenges with Unwavering Conviction

Ali is seen as someone who resists assimilation not only in the RING, but also in his relationship with the Nation of Islam, his negotiating of romantic relationships, and his outspoken disdain for the Vietnam War – all of which are depicted with a subtlety that conveys a man struggling against the pulls of changing environments. Credit both to Smith’s performance and to Cohen and Levine’s writing for representing these aspects with a nuance that invites compassion.

A Self-Made Man in a World of Expectations

But the most affecting element in ‘Ali’ might well be its depiction of a man’s relentless struggle to define himself on his own terms. Ali’s one-liners and magnetic on-stage persona are presented as strategies as much as they are achievements, second only to his ringcraft. And it’s the scenes in which the man behind the myth shows through that power the film.

The Power of Resilience: The Rumble in the Jungle

Ali’s rise to the conflict with Foreman is not only a narrative build but a microcosm of his attitude: his willingness to take a beating and to endure and to emerge triumphant against the mighty overnight tide, as he used to call the massive Foreman. The fight is the essence of his aphorism, his tactic: to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Will Smith's Tour de Force

Thanks to Will Smith’s subtle, intense portrayal, the final result is a convincing actorly channeling of the man who was Muhammad Ali. The physical transformation was a dauntingly ambitious one, but the arc of the film is Ali’s story, of course. The scenes that reveal Ali the most – and the key to Smith’s performance and Best Actor Oscar nomination – are not the boxing matches or the to-camera monologues. Instead, they are the quieter scenes, the moments when the bravado slips. This was something new for Smith. The Ali film brought recognition as an artist of profound depth and complexity.

Understanding Ali Through the Lens of "Ali"

Though a biopic of a sporting titan, as a cinematic tribute, Ali does more than tell the story of a man whose allure was as much about who he was as what he achieved. Its nuanced script and stellar performances invite viewers to share in the triumphs and tribulations of Muhammad Ali the man, and to understand the challenges fought not just in the ring but in the arenas of social justice, personal selfhood and the struggle for autonomy.

Ali is not just a film about boxing. It is a film study in resilience, a critique on stardom, a meditation on the single individual to defy fate. Streaming on Netflix, it is still an inspiration for new audiences, reminding us to stand by our principles no matter what the external adversities.

*Ali* remains a fitting tribute to Muhammad Ali, a fighter outside the RING as well as in, and one whose legacy is just as pertinent today, 11 years on from his death.

Jun 16, 2024
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