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My Father Muhammad Ali: Documentary Explores Legend’s Son’s Traumas

Photo: courtesy Verdi Productions.

If you’ve wondered, in the wake of discussions of “Nepo Babies”—the sons and daughters of the notable and wealthy who’ve now seemingly taken over the entertainment industry—if there might be a downside to being born into celebrity, the new documentary My Father Muhammad Ali is sure to give you even further pause. Its sometimes-too-close-for-comfort approach suggests that sharing the name of arguably the world’s most iconic, recognizable celebrity is no guarantee of success—or even of simple mental wellness.

The documentary raises all kinds of questions about celebrity and parentage. For most of Muhammad Ali, Jr.’s life, celebrity was no advantage. One of four children born to the boxing legend Muhammad Ali and his second wife, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, “Junior” as he’s called by the filmmakers was abandoned by his father, left by his mother to be raised by grandparents, and struggled throughout his life: first as the victim of bullies, later in a failed marriage, then having abandoned his own children, and eventually in the throes of addiction to crack.

For Junior, bearing his father’s name might have been a personal point of pride, but it also made him a prime target of bullies at Homewood-Flossmoor High. His shy, sensitive nature seemed to attract the thugs who thought beating up the champion’s son might bring them some social credit in the form of bragging rights. In adulthood, after a failed marriage, a tough-to-beat drug habit, and ongoing mental challenges, Ali Jr. is struggling to turn his life around on a paltry $1,000-a-month stipend from the reported $50 million-dollar Ali estate controlled by the late champion’s fourth wife.

As the documentary begins, Junior is working to turn his life around, completing his GED and starting up a foundation (The Muhammad Ali Legacy Continues Foundation) he hopes will provide affirmative care and physical fitness resources for youth challenged by bullying, autism, abuse, neglect, and the like. It’s an honorable goal—and at the same time, for someone with such limited resources and precarious health it seems an overly optimistic one. A scene where Junior and his partner hold a press conference to an audience of one suggests developing a successful foundation from scratch won’t be easy.

Following a few short minutes of archival footage featuring the boxing legend in action and with family, there’s a brief snippet of Ali the senior declaring to the camera: “My son will carry on my legacy.” It’s a bold claim, especially given that he did apparently nothing to ensure the boy would be able to. The film asks whether Ali’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease might have accounted for his abandonment of Junior. It’s a possibility, I suppose, as is an equally viable alternative: that the boxing champ was simply a poor father, uninterested in his son and inattentive to his upbringing.

The film relies to no small amount on the perspective of Dr. Monica O’Neal, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and “relationship expert” known as “Dr. Monica” on her television appearances. I was taken aback to see sessions between the doctor and patient unfold on camera. One can assume both participants consented fully to have their interactions taped, but even when shot on split-screen, the scenes feel more intrusive than intimate. I hope that some good comes from both the interactions themselves and their being broadcast in this medium.

A split-screen image of psychologist Dr. Monica O'Neal (left) and Muhammad Ali, Jr. (right)
Photo: courtesy Verdi Productions.

Given that My Father Muhammad Ali aims to recount both its subject’s past traumas and his present attempts to recover from them, the documentary faces a significant challenge: since nearly none of Junior’s childhood or younger adult life was filmed, what can it show? These sessions between Junior and Dr. O’Neal, for one. What else? Junior himself talking, though he struggles to articulate coherently his own past, for another. His biological mother and one of his daughters, in interviews. A friend. A mentor. Some crayon illustrations.

And more—including some less-than-perfectly-sensical driving-around sequences and more than a few sequences of the subject on slow walks, shot with shiny bokeh effects with contemplative, if nondescript music. Plenty of posing with pictures of his more famous father. My Father Muhammad Ali is shot with every good intention, but its complications outweigh its ambitions. Documentary filmmakers always face a version of this challenge: is what they are shooting viable? Is there enough visual content to tell the story? Is there, indeed, a story to tell?

In the recent Children of the Mist—perhaps the best documentary of 2022—filmmaker Hà Lệ Diễm waited patiently for three years living alongside her subjects in a remote Vietnamese village before the conflicts ultimately came to a climax. In Minding the Gap, director Bing Liu more than once discarded his plans for a new direction—and in the process made a groundbreaking treatise on adulthood and masculinity. The recent baseball documentary The Last Out is made all the greater by the troubling realities of the risky border crossing one of its subjects desperately attempts.

Muhammad Ali. Jr faces the camera in a boxing ring
Photo: courtesy Verdi Productions.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare My Father Muhammad Ali to films like these, some of the very best documentaries in recent memory. But they illustrate a salient point: that a documentary’s chosen subject might not necessarily do or say something cinematically memorable or fascinating. (And sometimes, that’s to the subject’s benefit but not the documentary’s.) In the case of the story of Muhammad Ali, Jr., who appears now finally on the road to wellness, getting therapy, forgoing drugs, mending relationships, and seeking purpose, what’s best for him—quiet, steady, unremarkable, uncinematic, anticlimactic progress—isn’t necessarily what’s best for a documentary film made about him.

Let’s hope the man Muhammad Ali, Jr. achieves his goals. My Father Muhammad Ali, meanwhile, despite a narrative that can be at times as directionless as its subject had been, still manages to present a portrait of American life, the scion of a celebrity, in a life marred by abandonment and abuse—and who still, after decades, can keep on his feet, punching away.

Directed and written by Chad A. Verdi & Tom DeNucci, My Father Muhammad Ali is available In select theaters and On Demand January 13, 2023.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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