When he arrived in 1960, he was Cassius Clay, a gold-medal winner but still an amateur, rough around the edges, not yet a fully formed boxer or personality. When he left seven or so years later, he was Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion of the world, beloved in some quarters and reviled in others, one of the most skilled but unquestionably controversial athletes in recent memory. The events that occurred in between are the focus of the PBS documentary Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami.
Ali went to Miami Beach to train at the 5th Street Gym, where the great Angelo Dundee worked with the handsome, quick-footed pugilist and turned him from an amateur to a pro. His development, as not only a fighter but a personality, is portrayed skillfully in Made In Miami, which utilizes no narration; the story is told through an impressive assortment of archival footage and photos, along with the words of various sportswriters, biographers, witnesses, and insiders like Dundee and Ali's fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco.
Along the way, we witness his social awakening, due in a great part to his friendship (and religious apprenticeship) with Malcolm X. Filmmakers Gaspar Gonzalez and Alan Tomlinson also analyze Ali's place in the complicated struggle between Malcolm and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and how Ali ultimately turned his back on his friend (the clip of his reaction to Malcolm's assassination is chilling). The film winds down with the controversy over Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (the one section of the film where this viewer would have liked a little more depth).
The film's centerpiece, however, is the excellent sequence showing the lead-up to and execution of Ali's championship bout with Sonny Liston. Gonzalez and Tomlinson cross-cut between the vintage fight film and analysis from several of their interview subjects to create the same kind of thrilling hybrid of intellectual acumen and brute force that made the Oscar-winning Ali doc When We Were Kings so effective.
The entire film is cut together with that kind of skill, effortlessly weaving the storytelling of its fascinating cast of characters with a healthy amount of extraordinary footage. Ali was one of the first professional athletes who really understood the power of the media; he created a persona and gave reporters miles of material. As a result, a good deal of terrific film has survived and is well-utilized here.
The enhanced widescreen image is pretty solid; the film's new interviews, though shot on video, have a minimum of softness or noise, and the vintage film, while expectedly aged, looks surprisingly good. It's not a perfect picture, but it's probably as good as you'll find from these kind of source materials.
Not much is required aurally from a documentary of talking heads and file footage, so the 2.0 stereo mix is more than adequate, keeping interview audio mostly sharp and focused. A couple of the new interviews sound somewhat hollow (as if they could have benefitted from better mic placement), but this is a minor complaint for what is a perfectly acceptable (if unexceptional) mix.
PBS Video hasn't provided us with much in the way of extras. There is a brief Preview for the film--basically a commercial for its original public television airing. The main bonus feature is "A Conversation With The Producers" (28:50), basically an extended discussion of the film by Gonazlez and Tomlinson. While it's nice to see these guys, hear about their backgrounds, and understand the passion that they brought to this project, the featurette is entirely too long and doesn't ultimately add much to the disc at hand. The effort is appreciated, but this viewer would have rather seen some of the raw materials-- the full, uninterrupted Liston fight, for example, or perhaps some additional interview footage.
Ali's life (particularly in this period) has become such a topic of discussion and examination that one might wonder what new light could be shed on it. But thanks to the wealth of available footage and insights of those who were there and those who have researched the man, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami is essential viewing--for students of boxing, civil rights, and American history. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.