‘City of Ali’ Review: A Final Round for a Champ

Muhammad Ali is probably already the most dramatized and documentarized athlete in film history, and “City of Ali” makes for an extremely lightweight addition to the former heavyweight champion’s cinematic universe. This documentary, directed by Graham Shelby, focuses on Ali’s relationship with his hometown, Louisville, Ky., and how the city gave him a grand send-off after his death in 2016.

Made with the participation of Ali’s family — some of his children are among the interviewees, as is his wife, Lonnie Ali (who is also shown giving a September 2020 speech about racial and social justice during the closing credits) — “City of Ali” presents an extremely basic overview of his career. It emphasizes Louisville-centered stories (of how the city police officer Joe Martin encouraged Ali, then Cassius Clay, to pursue boxing, for example) and shows residents and friends reminiscing about local sightings.

The film movingly pays tribute to Ali’s generosity and lack of airs. Kelly Jones of the Louisville Metro Police recalls the time Ali entertained Jones’s 18-month-old daughter at an airport. The Louisville news media personality John Ramsey is shown delivering a eulogy in which he remembers how Ali raised the spirits of a losing boxer at the 2000 Olympics.

But the nuances of Ali’s relationship with Louisville — where Ali faced discrimination as a Black American and controversy for his refusal to be drafted — tend to get lost in the celebration of civic pride. And much of “City of Ali” is simply arcana. The security arrangements for Ali’s funeral procession and the plan to spread rose petals near his resting place aren’t exactly movie-worthy subjects.

City of Ali
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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