There is no “reality” TV. Anyone who works behind the scenes knows there’s acting and editing manipulation involved to frame the final scenes we see depicting the addictive drama many love. But in a time when nothing is true unless it’s caught on tape, the best reality of all comes from recordings of what we can actual see and hear happening live, whether it be Ray Rice in an elevator domestically abusing his wife or Donald Sterling spitting racial slurs across the NBA.
Adding to the 2014 theme of sports-world reality is the documentary I Am Ali, where one of the greatest athletes of all time, heavy weight champ Muhammad Ali, reveals his personal life truth among 111 minutes of taped phone calls and conversations recorded by himself. Much of this reality revolves around conversations with family, including the Champ’s four wives and nine children.
In his heyday, Ali, 72, could have easily been the focus of an episode of Iyanla Vanzant’s Fix My Life, focusing on men with multiple children by different women. But in I Am Ali, a rarely seen aspect comes in his quest to bring all of his offspring together, despite the adult drama.
“He had kids by many different wives, but he really was a person always trying to check himself and admit I’m not a perfect person, but I’m trying to strive to be the best I can be,” says Maryum “May May” Ali, the oldest of Ali’s children. “There are people, not just athletes, people with extended families and fathers who don’t have the patience or time to deal with four women and trying to keep their kids loving each other. This is what people don’t know about him. My father fought for that just as hard as he fought Joe Frazier. He was always [saying], ‘Love your sister Hana. Yeah, you have a sister Hana. Yeah, you have a different mother. Yeah, the divorce was ugly, but Hana’s innocent. She looks like you.’ My father fought for that.”
May May contends that to this day, because of Ali’s efforts, all of her brothers and sisters know one another, get along, and come together for their father. “I have guy friends with wives who use the kids and put them in the middle and they give up on that like, ‘I’m not dealing with that woman,’ ” she says. “My father would not have it. So I grew up to so respect him for that.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she continues. “We have had moms and mistresses who were like, ‘You can’t see your daughter. You didn’t marry me.’ That’s happened in our family. And my father was like, ‘Look, as long as I have access to my children’s ear, I’m going to tell them to love each other, their blood.’ ”
Hana Ali—daughter from Ali’s third marriage to actress Veronica Porsche that also birthed the most famous of Muhammad’s children, Laila Ali—says the image of her father was not completely understood.“I think the misconception is, people think he’s very arrogant and don’t know how sensitive and humble he is. A lot of the bragging he did was to raise Black morale and promote himself. But he’s very sensitive and caring and not afraid to show that of himself,” says Hana.
“He taught us so many lessons. He taught us all and sort of recycled the features throughout life for us. Laila and I would go out and give away our lunch money. We thought that was cool and we were only 7 years old. We’d go to our father at seven in the morning and he’d open up this round black bank he had near his desk and give us money. And we would go on our bikes to find homeless people and give them money. That was the biggest lesson for me being that we were so young.”
One of the greatest athletes of all time, ending his career with 61 fights, 56 wins, and 37 knockouts, I Am Ali features commentary from the likes of George Foreman, Mike Tyson and Jim Brown. But the most riveting and passionate revelations come from Ali’s family, specifically his son, Ali Jr., conveying the pressures of living in the shadow of his father, to ex-wives, associates, and daughters. Each is a reflection of the influence Ali had on their individual lives, including Hana’s work as an author and May May’s career as a social worker in California youth gang prevention.
“What keeps me going that my father imparted to me is he stressed a balance—physical and emotional,” says May May. “He talked about spiritual the most. He taught me that everybody is going to die and they have to be accounted for what they did in their life” May May released the tapes of her father to I Am Ali writer-director Clare Lewins after a year of back and forth conversations. “To me that keeps me going. So whenever I’m tested, I think of the spiritual conversations I had with my father.”
Documenting Ali’s private thoughts on his conversion to Islam, issues with the government, battles with the boxing commission during his Vietnam draft protests, and work to bring all of his children together, I Am Ali shows the rarely seen personal side of a man who outside of changing the world and moving like a butterfly inside the ring, managed to bring together a family through phone calls strengthened by blood and purpose.
“He had children out of wedlock. He met my mom when he was still married to May May’s mom. But because of his love and foresight and bringing us together and teaching us we’re all equal and should get along and love each other, we do,” says Hana, who along with the rest of her siblings contends that although their father suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, he is still aware and alert. “Our father was amazing. He went above and beyond and we’re grateful for that when you think of athletes today, people in general. We’re very proud.”
I Am Ali is currently in theaters.
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and advocate. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.