“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” –Audre Lorde
During the height of Jim Crow segregation, when Black people in America were legally defined as unequal citizens, Muhammad Ali was redefining what it meant to be a Black celebrity and athlete. Bold and fearless, he used his popularity as a champion boxer as a platform to speak out against racial injustices and inequality.
In the exquisitely done two-part documentary, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali, acclaimed director Antoine Fuqua chronicles Ali’s life and legacy. Beginning with his early days in the 1950s as an amateur boxer in Louisville, Kentucky to the later years when he became a global citizen and political ambassador while battling Parkinson’s disease, Fuqua paints an extensive portrait of an extraordinary human being.
Composed entirely of archival footage, and void of talking head interviews, input from historians, or people who knew Ali, Fuqua allows the sports legend and civil rights icon to speak entirely for himself—and he’s darn good at it! Pulling from never-before-seen interviews, both audio and video, newspaper clippings, and footage from his Deer Lake Training Camp in Pennsylvania, What’s My Name is Ali’s eulogy to himself. Born with the gift of gab, the heavyweight champion never stops talking—not even when he’s in the boxing ring.
A brilliant and graceful competitor with panther-sharp instincts and reflexes, Ali’s personality shines through Fuqua’s lens. Normally jovial in spirit, Ali is often seen playfully taunting his opponents before and during matches. However, when provoked, he wasn’t afraid to get vicious.
In 1964, at the age of 22, Ali converted to the Nation of Islam shedding his birth name Cassius Clay for Muhammad Ali. In doing so, Ali effectively made himself even more of a target for the U.S. government, Islamophobia, and racism. Three years later Ali was still fighting to shed his old name. He would use both his fists and his words to get his point across.
In one of the more powerful sequences of the film, Fuqua turns his lens on the press conference leading up to Ali’s fight against Ernie Terrell. Ali asks his opponent, “Why do you call me Clay? You know my right name is Muhammad Ali.” Terrell says plainly, “I met you as Cassius Clay. I’ll leave you as Cassius Clay.” Ali retorts, “It takes an Uncle Tom Negro to keep calling me by my slave name. You’re an Uncle Tom.” That was just the beginning.
On February 6, 1967, in what is now called the “What’s My Name” fight, Ali delivered blow after punishing blow to Terrell. During the 15 round fight which Ali unanimously won, “The Greatest” would repeatedly ask Terrell, a former friend and sparring partner, “What’s my name?” Ali had shown his prowess as a fighter long before he and Terrell came into contact. However, by highlighting the sequence and naming the film after the famous fight, Fuqua reveals exactly what Ali was up against in and out of the ring.
Though audiences are often intrigued by the personal lives of celebrities, Fuqua’s journey through the boxer’s life never feels invasive. What’s My Name is a film about a man who knew how to put himself center stage without allowing the spotlight to break him. A very young man during the prime of his career, Ali should have had the world at his feet, and in some ways he did. Yet, as a Black man in the Jim Crow era, everyone from the U.S. Army draft to the Athletic Commission was trying to squeeze the life out of him, but Ali refused to let that happen. With the grandeur of the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Jackson, and the charm of a movie star, it is magical to watch Ali speak his own destiny into existence.
What’s My Name showcases Ali’s gorgeous arrogance. He wasn’t just a champion, but a history maker who stood for something. With his fearlessness, he set a precedent for Black athletes who have spoken out about injustices in our community. Though he won gold at the Olympics, was vindicated more than once, participated in the Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila boxing matches, among others, Ali’s most significant move was establishing his own identity outside of the public’s perception. By letting Ali speak for himself, Fuqua slices through the noise, silencing all of the labels that were placed on the late legend while unveiling one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century in all of his well-earned glory.
What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali was reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28, 2019. The film will premiere exclusively on HBO on Tuesday, May 14 at 8:00 pm EST.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide