There are few obvious parallels between the boxer and his biographer. In one corner you have a rangy African-American from Kentucky, a champ by the age of 22. In the other there’s a stocky Chicago Jew who barely began punching his weight as a filmmaker until early middle age. Yet one quality at least links Muhammad Ali and Michael Mann: both men talk a terrifically good fight.
In Mann’s film Ali, the hero spends the first 20 minutes or so in a kind of wordless reverie before blowing noisily into the weigh-in for the first Sonny Liston fight, bragging 19 to the dozen. Likewise Mann, who prowls deliberately around his hotel room for a few moments, arranging chairs, ordering coffee, pouring water. Then he takes his seat, and — bam! He’s like a bull out of the gate, talking about the political and racial tensions of mid-1960s America, about how Ali was wired into every cultural conflict going; about how he was studying film in London at the time of the Liston rematch and stayed up until nearly 3am to watch it on television; how the first-round knockout was over in an instant. His speech is a flurry of passion and justification, a crash course in his own artistic credentials.
One suspects that this normally wouldn’t matter to Mann. This, after all, is the director of films such as Manhunter, Heat and The Insider: he shouldn’t need to argue his case with anyone. And yet the Ali film was a prize that had to be earned. Ever since it was first mooted as a possibility a decade ago, the movie has been one of Hollywood’s more prestigious projects. At one stage it looked as though Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black) would direct the picture, with Will Smith in the title role. Then Sonnenfeld slipped out of the frame, though Smith stayed on board.
For a few fraught months the script was tugged between two filmmakers, Michael Mann and Spike Lee. The decision lay with backers Sony. Their budget was set at $100-million and Mann, who had just received an Oscar nomination for his smoking-gun tobacco industry exposé The Insider, was generally regarded as the safer pair of hands. Lee was left smarting, protesting the decision and complaining (via a friend quoted in the New York Post) that “only a black man could do justice to the Cassius Clay story”.
I wonder what Mann thought when he heard that. “Nothing,” he says flatly.
“Really nothing.” Even so, he can’t resist defending himself. “The support for this film within the black community has been extremely strong and that’s important to me, you bet. Because I wanted the film to come from the point of view of the main character, Muhammad Ali. I’m not interested in showing a white man’s idea of how someone suffered racism. The perspective of the film has to be African-American. So the endorsement of African-American viewers and critics is terribly significant.
“The only other endorsement that’s more significant to me is Muhammad Ali’s and he likes the film a lot. He’s seen it six times.” His laugh is like a bomb going off.
Small wonder that Ali likes Ali. The film plays as a veritable victory lap, opening with his surprise win over Sonny Liston in 1964 and closing a decade later with an exultant freeze-frame after the George Foreman fight in Zaire. It gives us Ali’s golden years, the period when the fighter was at his most crucial, charismatic and confrontational — before his professional decline and eventual illness.
Isn’t it almost an authorised biography? “No, I don’t think so,” says Mann. “First of all, I make films for myself. I have total creative control over what I do. I don’t have a history of trying to please people.”
Not even the studio? Surely he encountered some pressure to tailor the film for a white mainstream audience, to cater to the sort of viewer who loves Ali for his grace and wit but doesn’t want to be grappling with all the hardline Nation of Islam baggage that comes with it.
“Oh, I’m sure the studio would have wanted a different movie altogether. They’d have wanted it PG-13 as opposed to R-rated, which means you can’t say ‘motherfucker’. That would have added another $20-million to the box office. But nobody can say I cater to this group or that group. Why?” A gimlet stare. “Do you think this film caters to a white mainstream audience?”
Actually I’m in two minds. It seems that Ali, by and large, attempts a painstaking portrait of its subject (aided by Smith’s spot-on mimicry in the lead role). Yet you sense that the film also skirts over some of its story’s more charged issues. For instance, it alights only with extreme delicacy on the subject of Ali’s womanising and goes to great lengths to paint him as his own man in his dealings with the Nation of Islam.
“But I’m not doing a documentary,” Mann says. “Part of the discipline of making a motion picture is to stay on-message. It would be catastrophic to divert into every interesting story. Everything this guy does is fascinating. I could have made an entire movie about Ali’s relations with women. Music, Cadillac convertibles and women. It would have been great.”
The problem, he admits, comes from shooting a film about a man who is one of the most photographed and documented figures of the late 20th century.
“Everybody has got their own idea about what this movie should have been. It’s not like The Insider, where people say, ‘I didn’t know about this.’ You could ask everyone what Ali meant to them and each person would have a specific story.”
Mann sighs. “That’s why I don’t plan to do another reality-based movie. I was supposed to direct a movie about Howard Hughes next, but now I’m not going to do it. I started to feel that the format was too imprisoning. It’s like, ‘In 1947, Howard Hughes goes in front of a congressional hearing.’ And it can’t be 1946. It can’t be 1937. And I’d like to say, ‘Y’know what? He crashes his plane on the way to the hearing.’ But you can’t do that.”
Instead he’s planning a return to television, shooting the pilot for a Los Angeles police drama for CBS.
TV is the place where it all begun for Mann. Upon returning from his apprenticeship in London, he took a job writing scripts for Starsky and Hutch. Later, he gravitated to directing TV movies and masterminding the rise of that pastel-hued cop-opera Miami Vice in the 1980s.
When Mann finally began shifting towards cinema, this TV pedigree would prove a hard label to shake off. Possibly it even remains so today; at least in the minds of some snooty critics who regard the director as an expert stylist, a craftsman as opposed to a true auteur. “My trouble was that I didn’t have a prejudicial attitude about whether it was TV or whether it was feature film,” he explains. “That prejudice was prevalent in the United States, whereas I’d just come back from London. A director in England would do opera, he’d do theatre, he’d do a TV play for the BBC, he’d make a film. So that was my perspective. It was a much healthier attitude.”
Not that Mann seems particularly nostalgic for his years in London. Back then he lived in a bed-sit in Queensway, just across the park from the lavish hotel he’s staying in now. A case, perhaps, of same neighbourhood, different worlds. “Well it was a very different London. It was probably the tail end of that post-war era. There were still a lot of bombed-out building sites and phones were these strange whirring devices that didn’t work. I loved it because I was studying film. But it was pretty cold, damp and miserable. Particularly if you were broke.”
The water is drunk and the coffee grown cold, and we’re clean out of time.
Mann bounds up from his chair and offers a firm handshake, plus a pat on the back that almost becomes a hug. The body language is at once briskly businesslike and oddly affectionate. His workout complete, the champ can afford to be magnanimous.