Muhammad Ali made over a dozen appearances throughout the years on the Dick Cavett Show. Each time the former heavyweight champion of the world would appear on Cavett’s program, he brought a charm and versatility that other athletes wouldn’t. The chemistry between Ali and Cavett in those old interviews are full of energy, comedy, great chemistry, and great personalities between the two, who were friends both on and off the air for several decades. Robert Bader, who works for Cavett as his archivist and has directed a number of documentaries on Cavett, directs this fun and timely documentary of one of the greatest sports figures of all time, the relationship he had with one of America’s greatest television personalities.
The film acts more as a documentary on the life of Ali, with his appearances on Cavett’s show being the starting point for telling his story. It looks into how polarizing of a figure Ali was, from the Olympics to when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam, to avoiding the draft because of his being a conscientious objector to the War, to his famous fights with Joe Frazier, and so on. Cavett is interviewed, along with Civil Rights icons like Rev. Al Sharpton and boxing experts throughout the film.
What made the interviews with Ali so fascinating, in the late 60’s to be exact, was how Cavett, who Sharpton calls “the whitest of white guys”, was able to give Ali and other icons of the Civil Rights era their time to speak out against injustices that they felt were occurring, like Ali being convicted of refusing to be drafted in the Vietnam War, and how Cavett could’ve easily played it safe and told Ali that he was betraying his country by doing so. There’s a great example of this when Ali stages his comeback fight in Atlanta, Georgia, must to the dismay of Lester Maddox, the racist/segregationist Governor of Georgia at the time (I remember his appearance on the Cavett show is referenced in the song “Rednecks” by Randy Newman). I had never seen the actual appearance that Maddox had on Cavett’s show (where he was debating Jim Brown over the Ali controversy), and watching that exchange, albeit in clips in this film, is nothing short of fascinating, and watching Cavett defend his friend to one of the biggest racists in American history is admirable and brave of the talk show legend.
And that’s the testament to this film, is the relationship between Ali and Cavett throughout all those years and Cavett staying close to Ali when he was at his lowest (Ali called Cavett his “main man” after being invited on the program right after losing to Joe Frazier the first time) and his highest points. It was a relationship that was beyond just a show business friendship, and Cavett to this day is still very sentimental about Ali, and the relationship they had. Honestly, this wasn’t the kind of film I was expecting to see (I guess it was a film that would be equally about Cavett’s career as it was Ali’s), but I’m very satisfied with what I saw.
Robert Bader’s documentary is an entertaining, informative, timely, and fascinating study into two great men. If you’re looking for the ultimate documentary on Muhammad Ali, this isn’t quite it (that honor goes to the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings), but it’s a solid documentary that’s well worth your time, whenever the film will be released to the public. This film feels perfect as a PBS/American Masters production, so I’m hoping those are the people who end up picking up this documentary after SXSW 2018 is all said and done.