Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

January 30, 2009

Thriller in Manila (review for Paste)

Filed under: Entertainment,Magazine articles by MJD,Paste articles by MJD,Uncategorized — michaeljohndunaway @ 10:18 am

thrillerinmanilla_filmstill11Talk about iconoclastic. The hagiography of Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, is so overpowering in the annals of American sports history (indeed, in American history full stop) that any whiff of dissent is treated as blasphemous and is grounds for immediate disdain and shunning. If you don’t believe me, just criticize Ali at a dinner party and watch the sparks fly. I speak from multiple experiences. So it’s all the more audacious that John Dower chose to film a feature-length documentary on the legendary Ali-Frazier fight in Manila from Joe Frazier’s point of view, a point of view that is awfully convincing and casts the legendary Ali in a decidedly less than flattering light.

Throughout his career Ali waged psychological warfare on most of his opponents, but never with such inhumanity and treachery as with Joe Frazier. Frazier had been friendly rivals with Ali early on, and advocated publicly and loudly for the champ’s reinstatement after he was banned for refusing to go to Viet Nam (even meeting personally with President Nixon on his behalf). So it was puzzling when Ali, before their first fight, began attacking Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” and “the white man’s champion,” even to the point of calling him a race traitor. By the thrid fight he had progressed to labeling him a “gorilla,” and even carried a small stuffed gorilla around with him, talking to it as if it were Frazier himself. As a black sportswriter in the film points out, it’s difficult for white people to appreciate how deep these words cut, and how outrageous it was for one black man to level them at another, especially in as constant and fierce a way as Ali did.

In the second third of the film, Dower explores the seamier side of the ridiculously corrupt Nation of Islam, including its rejection of all whites and Jews as devils and its negotiations with the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan aimed at achieving their common goal of absolute racial separation. Some critics have criticized these digressions as distracting, but they seem to me to be crucial to the demythologizing nature of the film. If Ali the public figure was at heart a dupe with his strings pulled by an evil, racist, murderous cult (as the film pervasively suggests), then how can he also be an unblemished hero?

But Dower’s most impressive accomplishment is painting as compelling a picture of Frazier as of Ali, rather than allowing the shadow of “The Greatest” to fall over the whole film. Frazier emerges as a hugely sympathetic (if not perfect) figure, baffled by the turn of events that rendered him an afterthought in the minds of the undeucated public. He still hasn’t forgiven Ali, all these years later (and as Dower points out, why should he?). But he still has a mischievous gleam in his eye, and he’s enormously charismatic (“Why didn’t you come earlier?” he told Dower. “I’ve been here since 1964.”). In the emotional final portion of the film, Frazier sits down and watches the videotape of the fight most boxing commentators call the greatest heavyweight fight ever, a fight he fought nearly blind. It’s the first time he’s ever seen it on tape. The film would have been irresistible even if all Dower had done was leave the camera on Frazier’s face as he watched.

Thriller in Manila (which you’ll be able to see on HBO at some point soon) comes, it seems to me, at an ideal time in our history of race relations, a time when a President Obama gives black America a chance to rethink its assumptions on what it means to be “black.” Ali attacked Frazier for being “the white man’s champ” because middle-class whites respected his work ethic, his bravery, and his (relative, always relative for a boxer) humility. He acted, in essence, “too white,” which really meant not enough in keeping with the fashionable rage and nihilism of the time. Be offended by that definition if you want, but far too many inner-city black kids who make A’s know exactly what I’m talking about. I used to teach some of them. Whatever the merits or demerits of President Obama’s political agenda, if he’s able to turn inner-city kids a little further away from defining themselves as underachievers and racial exclusivists, he will have accomplished more than most presidents. May it be so.


1 Comment »

  1. Ali lighting the Atlanta Torch was the single worst moment of the entire Games.

    Comment by fbenario — January 30, 2009 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

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