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Director Muta’Ali on Cassius Clay’s transformation into Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century. In the ring, his sheer power combined with agile footwork to catapult Ali to glory as a world champion who finished his career as arguably the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Outside the ring, his larger-than-life persona and fearless demeanor transcended sports as Ali became a civil rights hero and global icon. Before he became Ali, however, he was Cassius Clay, a young boxer with aspirations for greatness.

In celebration of Black History Month, the transformation of Clay into Ali is the subject of the new Smithsonian Channel documentary, Cassius X: Becoming Ali. Directed by award-winning film director Muta’Ali (Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn), Cassius X chronicles Clay’s life from 1959-1964 as he strives to become World Heavyweight Champion. At the same time, Clay discovers the Nation of Islam and forges a friendship with Malcolm X that influences his spiritual beliefs and results in a new name.

In an interview with Digital Trends, MutaAli speaks about his first introduction to the boxing icon, the biggest misconception about Clay, and if there could ever be another Muhammad Ali.

Cassius Clay raises his hand in a boxing ring.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Digital Trends: What was your first introduction to Muhammad Ali?

Muta’Ali: It must have been through conversation. My grandparents are activists, and they were very involved, so I think they must have talked to me about Muhammad Ali, probably as a political figure, back when I was growing up. But then I think I also watched video games of him fighting. He’s all over the place in posters and everything, but it wasn’t until later in life that I started looking back at his fights and things like that. He was in the atmosphere, of course, growing up.

How did Stuart Cosgrove’s book come on your radar? When did you consider taking on this project for the documentary?

Muhammad: That’s a great question. Back in 2020, I got a call from an executive producer named Mick McAvoy, who was calling from Scotland. At that time, he was at Two Rivers, [who] are a part of making this whole film. They had optioned Stuart’s book, and Mick was like, “Yeah, I think you’d be a perfect director for this film about Muhammad Ali.” In my mind, I’m like, “Oh my goodness. There are so many films [about Ali]. What are we going to do that’s different?” He said, “Read this book, Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali.” He sent me the book, I read it, and I’m like, “Oh, OK. I see what’s going on.”

What Stuart Cosgrove was able to do was capture a moment in time when Cassius Clay transformed into Muhammad Ali between 1959 and around 1964. He did it through the lens of observing what Cassius Clay was immersed in, in terms of American culture and how that shapes him. The book delved into a lot of other aspects of American culture, in terms of music and politics, and distilling it all down through my lens as an African-American with a Muslim name whose parents changed their names. As a film director, Mick McAvoy knew that I would have a great shot at adding to the story.

So I think I did, and Stuart said he’s really happy with the film, so now we have Cassius X: Becoming Ali, and I’m really excited. We still focus on Muhammad Ali’s spiritual journey, and we weave in all of the exciting boxing moments throughout those years too, which is really great.

Having producers from Scotland call you to make this film speaks to the fact that Muhammad Ali was a global superstar.

Muhammad: Absolutely. And not to forget, the Smithsonian Channel set this all in motion. After I thought this could be great, the Smithsonian blessed us and was behind the project from beginning to end. I think the work that they’ve done to make sure this story gets out there is really phenomenal. It’s a great experience as a director to be working on a project with them. They’ve got other films throughout Black History Month, and are really doing a powerful job at acknowledging Black History Month and acknowledging our American history in a great way.

Headshot of director Muta'Ali.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

This film covers Ali’s life inside and outside of the ring. They go hand in hand and hand. You do a good job of balancing them in the film. Did you find it challenging to balance both?

Muhammad: It was absolutely challenging. It’s a quiet moment when you’re sitting there and thinking about what you believe, your faith; it’s the opposite of being in a huge arena like Madison Square Garden, performing a physical feat in front of everybody. You have to balance this really quiet moment of observation and inner search with the big fights. I think, in terms of time on screen, [that] was absolutely a challenge, but we got through it. I think the diversity of the production helped because I was able to express what I think needs to be conveyed from my perspective as an American Black man.

Other people from Scotland and other areas were able to contribute from their perspective about, “OK, what’s important? How am I going to track this journey where this Black man from Louisville {Kentucky] goes from being identified as Cassius Clay, then learning that it’s called a slave name, and then deciding to discard that name and take on a whole new religion?” I think with the people involved and with my passion for this subject, having been personally connected to transformations like that, I think we did a good job at balancing the two.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Ali during that time frame?

Muhammad: That he was always the big personality. I think that’s a misconception, and it’s also probably reductive to think that he was always just that big personality. For the first part, you can see in the film when he’s being interviewed at the 1960 Olympics, he’s quiet and kind of humble speaking to the journalist. And you could see by the end of the film, the way we know him to be, he’s telling these journalists what it is, like, “This is me, blah, blah, blah. You’re going to accept it or not.” That is a shift. He wasn’t just always like that.

The other thing is his pageantry is otherworldly. We document him in London when he’s fighting Henry Cooper, and he walks into the ring with a big crown on his head and a robe. His ability to draw the crowd into the fantastic side of this head-on competition is so huge that sometimes people mistakenly think that that was 99% of who he was.

But from what was shared with me on camera, through the people who knew him and who granted us interviews, he had a very deep intellectual side that was hungry for knowledge and processing and calculating how to perform best. How to wield his power as a public figure in a way that suited him and suited the people he loved and his community. That was fascinating.

You hit the nail on the head there. Ali was brilliant. This was a brilliant man that just also happened to be an amazing boxer, and the documentary really hammers that home.

Muhammad: Yeah. I’m glad we were able to make that point clear because he absolutely was at such a very young age. It’s just remarkable. He was in his late teens when we start the film and still in his early 20s when he became the heavyweight champion of the world. At such a young age, he was intellectual like that and very close to powerful figures, like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. Obviously, it’s powerful to be a heavyweight champion of the world. It’s unimaginable, the scale he was operating with it.

Smithsonian Channel™ reveals Black History Month programming slate with “Cassius X: Becoming Ali”

You interview a wide range of people for this documentary, and I think the one that stands out is Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, because of the history between her, Ali, and her father. Take me through the process of securing Ambassador Shabazz for the documentary. Was she happy to speak with you? Did she have any hesitation?

Muhammad: Well, I’ve known her for a long time. Malcolm X’s family and my family have a deep history, so I kind of grew up knowing Ambassador Shabazz. I call her auntie [laughs], so it wasn’t a cold call out of nowhere to convince her. But it did take some work. You don’t see her on television, hardly at all, talking about this particular part of her life. I think she trusted me after some vetting. It’s not like she just said, “Hey, do what you want.” After some vetting and some understanding of exactly how I wanted to tell the story, she eventually said, “Let’s do it.”

It wasn’t like she just said, “Yeah whatever,” because she is a trusted member of Muhammad Ali’s legacy even though her father, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali’s friendship disintegrated in life. At the end of the film, you’ll see Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, [who] as an adult, reconnected with Muhammad Ali. She is a great advocate and has great love for Ali and his family. She is sort of a protector of his legacy and wanted to make sure that we did right by his legacy. And of course, I believe we did. It was wonderful to get her on film and to get her perspective.

In today’s world with social media, for people who didn’t grow up with Ali, it’s hard to comprehend how one person, one athlete in particular, could become this larger-than-life global superstar. Every single person knew the name Muhammad Ali. He’s one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century. Could there ever be another Muhammad Ali? 

Muhammad: You know it’s hard to say because one thing that you reminded me of is that Muhammad Ali stepping into the scene and emerging as this champion coincided with broadcast TV emerging. He was, I think, the most exciting figure on television when television grew into becoming what it means and meant to the world.

I think television and Muhammad Ali rode each other’s wave to a certain degree, and it gave him an avenue to really become so well-known so quickly. His personality was so infectious in a great way, and his talent was so phenomenal that people had to pay attention to him. It would take something that I haven’t considered yet in terms of the future of technology for there to be another Muhammad Ali.

He was the first reality star, in a way.

Muhammad: [Laughs] Exactly, yes. I think I would agree with that.

Muhammad Ali stands with his hands on his hips.

Do you have a favorite Ali moment?

Muhammad: In the film, I think my favorite moment is after the Doug Jones fight. when he’s sitting there all sweaty and tired, he says he doesn’t care if people boo or anything. He just wants them to pay to get into the fight [laughs].

A showman.

Right. I think that was the insight into the layered thinking that he had. He was definitely a showman. He definitely knew how to work the ring and defeat these boxers, but he knew about bottom-line economics, and what his job was in terms of making that at the box office sing, so I like that moment a lot.

What is the biggest takeaway you want people to walk away with after watching this film?

I feel that there are a few moments that stung [while] watching it. Of course, we know that he went through a lot of rejection, but the personal rejections, I think, make me think that when the credits roll, I hope people can be more open-minded about how they interact with other people and how accepting they are of different opinions, different beliefs, and different ways of life.

I think that now in terms of our culture, we’re in that cancel culture world, and I hope we get away from that more. I hope that the takeaway after watching Cassius X has a little bit to do with that even the greatest [athlete] had to deal with personal rejection, [with] people trying to cancel him a little bit. So I think that would be a takeaway.

Cassius X: Becoming Ali premieres p.m. ET on Monday, February 20, on the Smithsonian Channel. 

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