Review: “The City of Ali”

By Richard Perkins


At first glance the newly released documentary, The City of Ali could be looked at by some as a run of the mill, all-too-familiar documentary about a famous celebrity’s life and death--they would be mistaken. Instead director Graham Shelby’s film offers a much deeper perspective; examining how a young African American boy growing up in the segregated world of 1950’s Louisville, Kentucky returned home to instill his humanitarian and patriotic beliefs enabling Louisville to become a city he called his own, and was proud to be raised in.


The film is framed by Leroy Neiman paintings, as it reveals how the death of Muhammad Al brought the people of his beloved Louisville, Kentucky together in one memorable week.


Although most people would share that his story is our story and we all know the highs and lows, Shelby’s film begs to differ. Through rarely seen interviews with Ali and backstories on the wide and varied people who spoke at his funeral, an insightful image of the man and his life’s work is revealed. The familiar faces are all here, former boxers, sportscasters, and other celebrities. The deep reflections are from the “not so'' famous--the young Indian college student who shared how his story helped her overcome racial taunts, the young boy who became an NBA superstar who lived two homes down from Ali, who’s youth birthdays would be celebrated by the champ when he was home. The impact of his dedication to helping others, praying with all religions and honoring the right for each person’s voice to be heard are at the heart of this powerful and moving documentary. So many in his Louisville community rose up, on the week of his funeral to share in their respect, honor, and love for the man, their stories of giving love back to him and what he meant to them is an affirmation on how one man’s life can have a profound influence on so many.


The film concludes with heartfelt speeches and tributes from Senator Orin Hatch, Ambassador Attalah Shabazz (the daughter of Malcolm X), and President Bill Clinton. Perhaps the message of Shelby’s film is that it offers a rare instance of what America can possibly hope to become. Bringing all together, from all walks of life to congregate to celebrate a life of service is the legacy of the man known as “the greatest.”