Film Review – Cassius X: Becoming Ali

Cassius X: Becoming Ali is worth a watch. Cassius Clay was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He changed his name to Muhammed Ali in 1964. His ancestors had been slaves (though one great grandfather was from Ennis, Co Clare!) he grew up in the deeply racist American society of the 1940s and 50s.  His mother recalled one occasion when he was denied a drink of water at a store because he was black.

Excelling at boxing as a teenager he won multiple golden gloves before winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics 1960 aged 18. Shortly after he turned Professional.

Boxing was heavily controlled by mobsters and Ali had to sign a management deal with a syndicate of 11 white businessmen. They took 50% of all his winnings.

Shunning the party lifestyle Ali remained teetotal and spiritually inquisitive.

Ali first heard about the Nation of Islam (The Nation) in 1959 and attended his first Nation meeting in 1961. He became a follower of the Nation though his management pleaded with him to keep this fact quiet as it would damage his earnings potential.

In 1962 he met Malcolm X who became his political and spiritual mentor. Malcolm at this time was a follower (principal spokesman) of the ideas of the Nation leader Elijah Muhammad – that the USA was a deeply racist society and that the solution was for black and white to separate into different countries with black people being given a portion of the USA to make their own country. Elijah also pushed a very conservative religious viewpoint.

Malcolm was a riveting speaker and was attracting more attention than Elijah Muhammad. Politically he was much stronger, advocating protests and resistance, including ultimately armed resistance to white racism especially by Police. Malcolm subsequently rejected the idea of separate black and white states. In 1963 Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm from being a spokesman for the Nation and several months later Malcolm left the Nation. Ali had been Malcolm’s pupil, and it is thought provoking how their, relationship might have developed had Ali stayed with Malcolm but sadly he chose to stay with Elijah Muhammad. Ali later said that turning his back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes he regretted most in his life.

The Nation also believed that black people should reject (as Malcolm X had done) their slave names i.e., the surnames of the slaveowners who had owned their ancestors. It was impossible for black people to learn what their original surnames had been so for those who became full members of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad would give them a new Islamic name, one they could be proud of. After Ali beat Sonny Liston as Cassius Clay, to take the world heavyweight boxing title in 1964 Elijah Muhammad granted him the new name Muhammad Ali. White reporters refused for many years to call him Muhammad Ali though he refused to answer questions asked to Cassius Clay. With the Clay name coming from a family of slave owners, Ali concluded: “Why should I keep my white slave master’s name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonoured?”

For refusing to respond to his slave name he became known as a political troublemaker. He became more active in attending Black civil rights events, though it undoubtedly lost him many fans and income. Ali was confident, cocky and a role model for young black people who refused to accept 2nd class status.

This movie, which only addresses his life up to the point he changed his name ends at this point with Cassius now Muhammad Ali. But readers should learn more about Ali’s struggles against racism, against being drafted into the Army, against his refusal to fight the Viet Cong. He said “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”. Also “Black men would go over there and fight, but when they came home, they couldn’t even be served a hamburger.”

For refusing to fight for the US Army in Vietnam Ali was threatened with jail. But he stood firm, inspiring many other black Americans and others to refuse to fight. He became a regular speaker at anti-war rallies, speaking against the war and racism and demanding civil rights.

For daring to speak out Ali was stripped of his world title by the Boxing Authorities and had his passport taken. He was unable to fight for 3 and a half years from age 25 to 29, probably his prime boxing years. He stood firm. He later won the World Championship twice more in 1974 and 1978 before retiring to concentrate on his faith. In later years, after Liberal US Capitalism had removed the worst, most public forms of racial segregation, Ali became less of a radical figure but we should never forget his contribution to the fight for civil rights and against racism and the Vietnam war.

Cassius X Becoming Ali is on general release in most Omniplex cinemas.