Without a doubt, the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali has had a tremendous impact on popular culture. Growing up in Harlem at the height of Ali’s swaggering seventies heavyweight fame, it was impossible for me to escape the image and voice of the mighty man. Sitting in the barbershop, the Ebony and Jet magazine covers caught my eye, as did the poster reproduction of a colorful LeRoy Neiman painting on the faded white walls. On Saturday mornings in 1977, the champ had his own cartoon series on NBC, using his slogan “I Am the Greatest” as the title. Later in the day, one could see him interviewed on The Wide World of Sports, spouting his personal brand of poetry into the microphone of his homie Howard Cosell.
As essayist Charles P. Pierce puts it in the latest Esquire magazine, “There simply has never been an athlete who has so deeply affected all levels of society the way he has.” However, while Ali’s celebrity crossed class and color lines, making him into a stingin’ like a bee, brown butterfly international icon, his influence on the African-American communities throughout America still resonates in rap music, sports, fashion, literature, art and film.
In the new documentary Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ, directors Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah examine the significant power of the fighter’s potent politics, poetics and personality. The recently completed film debuts tonight, Wednesday, September 23 at the 19th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival and also premieres on BET shortly thereafter. “There have been other documentaries on Ali, but none have really talked about how his legacy affects our culture today,” Coodie, a Chicago native, says. “For a lot of people, Ali is still very much in their minds.”
Having met in 2002, Coodie and Chike, who hails from New Orleans, have co-directed various film and video projects together including Kanye West’s dope “Through the Wire,” the controversial Erykah Badu butt-naked clip for “Window Seat” and the heartbreaking documentary Benji (currently on Netflix), about high school basketball star Ben Wilson who was slain in 1984. Having formed their production company Creative Control in 2007, the two filmmakers share a passion for cinema that is always palpable within their various projects. “They totally complement one other,” says The People’s Champ producer Marjorie Clarke. “They each have different skills which together make them an amazing team.”
Shot in rich black and white that master-mixes archival footage with the reflective thoughts of his daughter Laila Ali as well as luminaries LL Cool J, Common, Nas, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Lewis, David Banner, Michael Eric Dyson, Billie Jean King, Walt Frazier, Sway Calloway, J. Ivy and Jim Brown, the film is a moving tribute to Ali. “Our opinion was, we were making this film for Ali, nobody but him,” says Chike. While interviewing poet Roni Marsalis, the young writer faced the camera and addressed Ali directly; the filmmakers decided to use that device throughout the documentary. “We wanted him to know just how much we appreciated him and how much he impacted each of us as men, woman and artists.”
Filmed over the course of three months, the directors researched their subject thoroughly and then split up the interviews. “One of my favorite quotes that didn’t make the final cut is when Tyson describes himself as an animal and then says, ‘But Ali was the animal trainer,’” laughs Coodie. “Ali was smart and he knew how to apply that knowledge over his opponents.” In addition, Coodie and Chike hired popular wordsmith J. Ivy of Def Poetry Jam to provide verbalistic interludes. “We wanted to do something cool that would bridge the gap of our subjects poetically, so we brought in J. to do that. For the music, we went to an amazing duo out of Brooklyn called Live Footage, who just came with the right kind of vibe.”
With Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ, Coodie and Chike have gone deep into the Black pop psyche of their subject and blessed us with a wonderful work that surpasses the typical documentary. “These filmmakers don’t work in a text book style,” producer Clarke says. “For them it has to feel right, flow right and reinforce the message they are trying to communicate.” For me, the message of the documentary is clear: Muhammad Ali remains the greatest.
Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ premieres at the Urbanworld Film Festival Wednesday, September 23 at 7:30pm ET. For more information about Urbanworld Film Festival, visit urbanworld.org.