Although it debuted last year, I just this week happened to catch the HBO documentary “Thriller in Manila.” As fate would have it, I was staying in the town in which the documentary’s antagonist, Muhammad Ali, was born and raised – Louisville, Ky.
You read that right, “antagonist.” Stunningly, John Dower’s documentary shows the Ali of his glory years for the cruel, racist, hypocritical, mind-numbed Nation of Islam zombie that he was.
It did not surprise me to learn, however, that “Thriller in Manila” is a British production. It is hard to imagine an American director making such a film.
The protagonist in Dower’s film, rightfully so, is the beleaguered Joe Frazier, a sharecropper’s son from South Carolina whom Ali successfully taught liberal America, including black America, to despise.
A few years back, I had written a book on the Ali myth called “Sucker Punch.” Although ESPN did an hour-long show on the book and The New York Times, shockingly, gave it a favorable review, the rest of the media predictably ignored it and continued to lionize Ali.
Dower’s film may have sobered the media up. Seeing Ali’s vicious, gratuitous racist jibes stings more than reading about them.
Dower does not pull his punches. He shows, for instance, Ali speaking to the Ku Klux Klan about the horrors of interracial marriage and then publicly humiliating his black Muslim wife by showing up in Manila with his exquisitely light-skinned, multiracial girlfriend.
What Dower does not do, although he hints at the answer, is to explain exactly how Ali became an American institution – the torchbearer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, for instance – despite his consistently reprehensible behavior.
The answer is pretty obvious. When the Nation of Islam coerced Ali into dodging the draft in the late 1960s, he gave the emerging, anti-war Left a symbol that was something other than white and weak-kneed. As these people began to take over the media in the 1970s, they did so with Ali perched triumphantly on their shoulders.
On the ESPN special, I explained this theory to the audience, and Ali’s best biographer, Thomas Hauser, himself an anti-war liberal of that era, agreed that it was true.
This is not to say that Ali is an evil person. It is just that the American Left continues to honor him for his evil period. When Ali came back to his instinctively patriotic senses, the media pretended not to notice.
Ali traces his hour of enlightenment to “around 1983.” Before this moment, he confesses to Hauser, “I thought I was a true believer, but I wasn’t. I fit my religion to do what I wanted. I did things that were wrong and chased women all the time.”
A year later, in 1984, Ali showed his newfound maturity by publicly supporting Ronald Reagan and even attending the Republican National Convention.
Hauser is very nearly alone in even broaching the subject of Ali’s Republican affiliations, and he does so with unintentionally comic effect, to wit, “Then another problem arose.”
Hauser admits that Ali supported both Reagan and later the senior George Bush, as well as a number of other Republican candidates, most notably Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.
This turn of events “saddened” at least several of those Hauser interviews. Andrew Young, U.N. ambassador under Jimmy Carter, “bemoaned” Ali’s support for candidates “whose policies are harmful to the great majority of Americans, black and white.” Said Democrat activist Julian Bond at the time, “I don’t know why he’s doing it.”
To say the least, Ali has not been a terribly dependable Republican voice. Outside the ring, his only area of true authority, Ali had long been vulnerable to the whims of those he trusted.
Still, if no more clear-headed than ever, the Ali who emerged in the summer of 1984 was at least more true to himself than the earlier incarnations.
“I was a zombie then – like all Muslims,” Malcolm X told biographer Alex Haley about his 12 years in the Nation of Islam. “I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march.”
If our leftist friends celebrate Malcolm’s emergence from zombiehood, they still insist on celebrating Ali’s zombie years. Let us hope the Dower documentary wakes them up.
Once awakened, they might tell the civic leaders of Louisville that “Muhammad Ali Boulevard” makes visitors like myself doubt their good sense, if not their sanity.