Glasgow Film Festival Review: Muta’Ali Muhammad’s ‘Cassius X: Becoming Ali’

Cassius X: Becoming Ali Review - 2023 Muta'Ali Muhammad Documentary Film

Vague Visages’ Cassius X: Becoming Ali review contains minor spoilers. Muta’Ali Muhammad’s 2022 documentary features Muhammad Ali, Jim Lampley and Attallah Shabazz. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


The story of Muhammad Ali is one that we will probably never be done telling. The American boxer loomed so large in the ring, shone so brightly out of it and impacted American culture so profoundly that he is simply inescapable. The fact that Ali’s life has been extensively documented proves to be both a blessing and a curse for Cassius X: Becoming Ali. It ensures that filmmaker Muta’ Ali Muhammad has a wealth of fascinating material to draw on, from dazzling footage of the man himself to interviews with an astutely assembled collection of contributors. But it also confronts the film with the daunting task of finding something new to say about one of the most talked about human beings ever to dance across the surface of the Earth. 

To avoid becoming just another cradle-to-grave tale, Cassius X: Becoming Ali narrows its focus to the pivotal period between 1959 and 1964. This life-changing half-decade would see Ali go from an Olympic gold medalist with an art for trash-talking to the youngest world heavyweight title-winner in the sport’s history. During this same period, Ali was deepening his relationship with the Nation of Islam, culminating in his official rejection of the name “Cassius Clay” shortly after becoming champion. 

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Cassius X: Becoming Ali Review - 2023 Muta'Ali Muhammad Documentary Film

Cassius X: Becoming Ali devotes equal attention to both sides of the story. Figures like the subject’s former girlfriend Dee Dee Sharp and Malcom X’s daughter Attallah Shabazz are called on to provide first-hand insight into his personal life, while boxing experts and Ali scholars like Jerry Izenberg, Jim Lampley and Thomas Hauser deliver blow-by-blow accounts of his in-ring adventures. In formal terms, it’s a highly conventional sports documentary, relying on that tried and tested one-two punch of talking heads and archival footage. But thanks to some sharp, propulsive editing and a highly intriguing set of speakers, Cassius X: Becoming Ali makes for an easily entertaining watch. 

Muhammad does an excellent job of immersing viewers in the time and place of the story. In detailing everything from the music Ali would have been hearing to the racist restrictions he would have faced in the segregated American South, the documentary steadily pieces together a full picture of the environment from which the subject emerged. Anyone who reaches his sort of legendary status often comes to feel like they stood separate from the world around them, but Cassius X: Becoming Ali successfully weaves the focal boxer’s story back into the era and culture of the time. In turn, that also helps the audience understand Ali’s personal interpretation of what it meant to be Black in America.

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Cassius X: Becoming Ali Review - 2023 Muta'Ali Muhammad Documentary Film

What’s definitively clear is that Cassius X: Becoming Ali doesn’t glorify or demonize the subject’s personal journey towards the Nation of Islam, but rather brings it more clearly into view. In terms of boxing, the film makes an equal effort to emphasize the ways in which Ali’s rise to the top was not the inevitable, unstoppable ascent it can look like in retrospect. The documentary calls attention to the early fights in which Ali’s hands hadn’t quite caught up to the speed of his motoring mouth, like his 1963 contested victory over Doug Jones or the 1963 bout in which Henry Cooper sent him crashing to the canvas. Having spent the weeks leading up to both fights loudly hyping himself up and putting his opponents down, Ali very nearly found himself unable to make good on his claims. As eager as he was to write himself into sports history, Cassius X: Becoming Ali makes it clear that his great narrative was often only a few points or few extra seconds away from getting wiped out.   

Mostly though, Cassius X: Becoming Ali provides a little extra texture to the subject’s cultural persona. Anyone with basic knowledge of Ali’s life is unlikely to find anything especially revelatory in the film that will change their opinion. However, the documentary provides another engaging telling of a well-worn story; a solid addition to the cinematic canon of Muhammad Ali.

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.

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