The beginning of the ’70s was an ideal time to make a documentary about heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who by that point had discarded his “slave name” Cassius Clay and become a controversial activist. When a.k.a. Cassius Clay was made, the fighter was in the midst of battles with sports authorities and the U.S. government to get his boxing license reinstated and to have his refusal to serve in the military on religious grounds validated. He was also pursuing so many alternate income sources that the documentary opens with footage of Ali’s failed attempt to star in a race-themed Broadway musical. Yet while the subject matter is fascinating and the timing is great, the film itself is a bore. In addition to being padded with clips of Ali’s legendary ’60s fights, the rambling a.k.a. Cassius Clay stumbles through such contrived episodes as Ali chatting with famed boxing trainer Cus D’Amato while they review newsreels of past fighting legends, such as Joe Louis, and discuss whether Ali could have beaten these fighters had their careers coincided. (Predictably, Ali claims he could beat any heavyweight who ever lived.) Easily half of the film’s running time comprises recycled footage, and the fresh stuff is weak. Worse, the whole picture is scored with cheesy funk music straight out of a ’70s porno, and narrator Richard Kiley (who periodically appears onscreen, speaking directly to the camera), repeatedly refers to Ali as “boy” (as in, “the promoters knew they had their boy”), which makes the project feel like a relic from a racially insensitive era. Plus, anyone even slightly familiar with Ali already knows every major fact this documentary presents. So, while a.k.a. Cassius Clay is not awful, per se—it’s basically accurate and basically coherent—the film is among the least inspired recitations of a great American tale.
a.k.a. Cassius Clay: LAME