It’s been five years since the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3, 2016 and a new documentary City of Ali tells the story of how, even in death, he continued to bring people together, especially in his hometown of Louisville. It’s a departure from the many other docs we’ve seen on the champ, mainly because it’s a much softer look at him, sentimental even. And that’s precisely why his twin daughter Rasheda, with his second wife Khalilah Camacho Ali (born Belinda Boyd), agreed to participate.
“I said, ‘yes,’ because I wanted people to know who my father was. And he wasn’t just a boxing icon. And he wasn’t just a humanitarian; he wasn’t just a civil rights activist. He was also a father,” Rasheda shares exclusively with EBONY. “And I lent my name to [City of Ali] because I wanted people to know . . . [that] he was very, very passionate about being a good father.”
And that passion for fatherhood, Rasheda says, never faded, regardless of what life threw at him. In wanting to make sure all nine of his kids knew and loved each other despite his four marriages, her father was ahead of his time in that respect as well. “Nowadays, of course, most people, they have extended families,” she explains. “Even though we grew up in different parts of the country, he wanted to make sure that we all loved one another, and that we spent time with one another. And we did that. So I think he really made it a point . . . he wanted us to all come together in California, where he lived, . . .to spend the summer together. And I think it was very successful. We all kind of got a chance to know each other.”
Having a father who literally was a global icon wasn’t easy for Rasheda and her siblings. “We never looked at our father as a world figure,” she says. “He was just Daddy. And, for me, I just wanted him there.” So much so that she acted out. Being five or six years old when your parents divorce is not easy, regardless of who you are.
“It was a burden,” she further explains, “because I think it was kind of ‘hey, you know, Daddy should be here. Why is he in another state?’ So I kind of went through a lot at that time. And, ultimately, in the end, as you get older, you start to realize you have to share your dad with the world because he’s making changes for all of us. He’s making sacrifices so that we all can be free.”
In Louisville, growing up in the Parkland section of town, Cassius Clay was very much a child of Jim Crow. And City of Ali acknowledges his beginnings, hinting at why he was so vocal throughout his career. Even though the documentary shows Malcolm X’s eldest daughter, Attallah Shabazz, speaking at Muhammad Ali’s service, it doesn’t delve super deeply into the two men’s iconic friendship. But, as recent shows like The Godfather of Harlem and films like One Night In Miami, though fictional, illustrate, the two men shared an intense bond.
“My daddy had so much love and respect for Malcolm,” offers Rasheda. “He had already been very interested in becoming Muslim four years before he even met Malcolm. And then when he met Malcolm, Malcolm kind of became his brother. Malcolm had a lot of love and respect for my father, too. So it was definitely a brotherhood, a love for one another. And it was so sad to see that friendship fall apart with the whole politics of the Nation going on because they really truly loved each other.”
Both Malcolm X and her father were proud Black men who did a lot for their people, Rasheda shares. “They were really just huge figures trying to help make or inspire African Americans to really feel good about themselves. They were so good at trying to help us have confidence at a time when we were not treated well at all. And it’s unfortunate because we’re still going through that today. . . .He wanted this world to be a better place. But I feel like history is repeating itself,” she says, conjuring images of the traumatic killings of George Floyd and Louisville native Breonna Taylor.
But, as the documentary shows, Muhammad Ali, even in his death, continued to bring people together. At the time of Muhammad Ali’s passing, Donald Trump was running for office and that helped to exacerbate anti-Muslim tensions. Muhammad Ali’s service, however, was a safe space for Muslims, and, as somebody notes in the doc, one of the few positive mainstream depictions of Muslims. That makes Rasheda especially proud.
“Watching the film just made me proud to be raised Muslim. There was a part where they showed the Janazah prayer, and it was so many Muslims from all over. But not only Muslims; there were also Christians, and Catholics supporting us and Jewish faith believers, all there praying for my father. And it was just so touching to see all the nationalities and religions coming together to just pay respects,” she says.
Until watching City of Ali, Rasheda had no idea that her father had a part in planning his own service, but now sees how his stamp was all over it. “It was nice to see, at the service, that Native Americans were represented, the Jewish faith, Muslims were represented and Christians, Catholics, every single nationality, race group, was represented. And I think that was a perfect way to sum up who my dad was because he did believe from the start in inclusion and love for all people. And it was really nice to see it all come together as they paid respects for his homecoming.”
For more information on how to catch a virtual screening of the film now and in theaters, please visit the City of Ali website.