Ali and the Nation of Islam in America

By: Paul LaChapelle


Muhammad Ali in the RingMuhammad Ali, the renowned boxer, once said, “ Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This quote would go on to be one of his more popular quotes that he said throughout his career and life. Throughout his career it seems like he lived by those words. He was light hearted in nature; whether he was in a heated press conference or at home with his family he was making jokes and rhymes. When entertaining its like his personality and charisma in fact would “Float like butterfly.” But with that said, he also would “sting like bee” if someone made him angry or said what he believed was wrong. The movie Ali captures these different sides to Muhammad Ali also known as Cassius Clay. The movie also examines the many decisions he made in his life due to being a follower of the Nation of Islam. In Ali these decisions involving his life relationships, his actions and his way of thinking were mostly dictated by his Muslim faith.

According to Ghada Hashem Talhami during the time of Muhammad Ali’s career the Nation of Islam within America was seen as a radical group who fought for equal rights for African-Americans. The Nation of Islam as opposed to peace groups for the Civil Rights movements tried to take action against whites in America. The Nation of Islam's popularity amongst African Americans can be found as far back 1913 where the predecessor to Elijah Muhammad set up the Canaanite Temple in Newark, New Jersey. A split then occurred causing there to be two groups, one called the Moabite Temple and the Moorish Divine National Movement of North America. The Moorish Divine National Movement of North America moved to Chicago in 1925 and created the Holy Temple of America.

Talhami also stated this split and movement about Drew Ali, who was determined to create a new national identity due to whites opposing integration and the failures to protect the rights of African-Americans. Drew Ali started to spread his ideas through his community and pretty soon all across midland America. He spread the idea that the Muslim faith was the African American’s first religion. Noble Drew Ali This idea he spread gained strength to develop a national identity and unification of African Americans in America at a time of adversity. Drew Ali claimed that the Moors who were from Morocco brought The Nation of Islam into American and settled in New Jersey. Although Drew Ali was assassinated in 1920 his ideas were expanded on by Marcus Garvey.

Marcus Garvey was the one to first propose the Universal Negro Improvement Association. This movement group was also known as the Return-to –Africa. He was an advocate of separating from other races within America. Garvey was also the predecessor to Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad gathered ideas from Marcus Garvey, Drew Ali, and the Moorish Temple. He tied economic idea to emphasize industry, commerce, and education to African-Americans. He is known for discrediting the National Urban League and the NAACP for working more with the middle class and neglecting the working class and the poor. He was able to promote the Nation of Islam rise as a leader of Black Nationalism within America.

Around the time of Elijah Muhammad and the uprising of Malcolm X, the FBI was starting to investigate the “radical” beliefs and actions of the Nation of Islam. They would go onto perform investigations such as “wire-tapping” to try to get more information about the faith, their beliefs and their future actions. Malcolm X was then the next notable member of the Nation of Islam. He was known for embracing the idea of violence to make a statement. Malcolm X later split from Elijah Mohammad called for greater black political and economic autonomy through the development of African-American pride. When Muhammad Ali first joined the Nation of Islam, He and Malcolm X were really close to each other.

In the movie Ali, Malcolm X is not only Muhammad Ali’s adviser but also his friend. The movie shows how after fights Malcolm and Muhammad Ali would either just call each other just to talk or Malcolm would even go over to Ali’s house and spend time with his family. It was not until Malcolm X was suspended from the Nation of Islam that Ali would stop spending time with him. In the movie you can see Ali shaking his head and saying, “you should’ve never disrespected Muhammad” referring to Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad Ali would not talk to Malcolm X again because he was later assassinated at a Muslim rally. The Nation of Islam basically influenced Ali to cut ties with Malcolm X, whom was a close friend and life advisor.

Muhammad Ali's first wife, Sonji Roy Ali. This began to be the life for Ali as a Muslim man, as he grew more with the faith the more Muslim friends he had and the more he wanted to have more Muslim members around him. This led to different altercations and arguments with his father throughout the movie. His father was a Christian man who wanted Muhammad Ali to remain Christian and to keep his name Cassius Clay. Ali’s father throughout the movie would say that Ali was a Christian and when Ali would do something in the name of the Nation of Islam, his father would say “you don’t know who you are anymore.” Or when Ali would tell people to refer to him, as “Muhammad Ali” his father would shout, “That’s not your name!” out of anger. One major argument that Ali and his father have in the movie is about his first wife, Sonji Roy.

According to the movie, Ali met Sonji at a nightclub after a night of dancing. Sonji was not a Muslim woman but Ali had fell in love with her and said that she must convert to the Islamic faith so that he can marry her. The Nation of Islam actually partially influenced this decision because Ali believed that marriage was the cornerstone of the beliefs of The Nation of Islam so he wanted to marry her right away. The disputes between Sonji Roy and Muhammad Ali would always stem from the fact that she was not modest enough to be a Muslim woman. He felt that she would embarrass him and embarrass herself when she would go out in public showing off her straight, flashy shiny hair and her flashy low-cut dresses. When she arrived at one of his fights dressed “flashy” one of Ali’s Muslim advisors called Ali and told him that if he did not divorce her at temple that he would be suspended from The Nation of Islam. Another relationship tat the Nation of Islam influenced was with his second wife Khalilah Ali. He would marry her because she was Muslim and she already kept her self modest by not wearing flashy clothes or having her hair straightened. In the movie she would wear a headdress to cover her hair and would not wear make up.

Just like the relationships in his life, The Nation of Islam’s beliefs also help direct his actions. An example in the movie is when he is fighting and his first wife Sonji showed up to the fight in a flashy dress and straightened hair he got angry and was able to win the fight by easily defeating his opponent in a knockout fashion. He got so angry at the situation because his wife embarrassed him in front of all of his Muslim brothers and sisters. Another situation where his Muslim beliefs guided him in the movie was when he was drafted to join the war on Iraq. He refused to go to war because not only did he not want to participate but because his religion would not allow him to do so. He risked going to prison for five years and a ten thousand dollar fine which they overturned the ruling. He was willing to put his five years of his life and his career on the line in order to keep his faith.Muhammad and his second wife Khalilah and their children

A turning point in the movie though was when he started to lose faith in his Muslim brothers. When Muhammad Ali was standing trial he had lost his boxing license in America, which meant that he could no longer fight within the United States. This also meant that Muhammad had no way to make money and he was going to lose his title belt. Out of frustration he called into a television show where they were interviewing boxer Joe Lewis and Ali basically vented and yelled on air that he was broke and talked about how he was dependent on the money of White Americans. Although he did openly state this, that’s what his message implied. The Nation of Islam saw his outburst on national television and they suspended him from the religion. Muhammad still kept his faith but he had lost respect and love for his brothers within the religions. He and his second wife felt that they were only around when he was successful and not around when he was down on his luck. The viewer can tell the difference in his attitude towards the end of the movie, he was not as strict with his self-policies for the sake of the Nation of Islam. Like when he went to Africa he befriended and fell in love with an girl who sat ringside to promote the fight by the name of Veronica Porche. Even though he was married to his second wife he did not have a trouble falling in love with Veronica. Whereas before his fallout with his brothers in The Nation of Islam, he believed that marriage was the cornerstone of his beliefs.

Muhammad Ali and Will Smith portraying himEven though he spent all of those years with the Muslim faith, he did not let the serious nature of The Nation of Islam take away his humor and wittiness as he still created jokes to embarrass his opponents and to also entertain his fans. Throughout the movie they highlight this and Will Smith does a great job of carrying that spirit of Muhammad Ali. As stated by Kurt Honeycutt in his review about Ali, “Will Smith, was a diligent worker in Ali, he has penetrated Ali’s speech rhythms and word play.” Smith did a good job of capturing the lighthearted jokes and the rhymes Ali would do to entertain the press, his fans, and friends.

This movie does do a good job of capturing most of the things in Muhammad Ali’s life, it does leave out little details. Keagan Doyle states, “Much of this story is true, but much is also simplified, sanitized, and sentimental.” Director Michael Mann does leave out a good amount of details but the viewer can still capture the radical behavior of Muhammad Ali and the Nation of Islam and also the viewer can see the ways in which The Nation of Islam dictated his life and his beliefs. Muhammad Ali will always be remembered as one of the greatest boxers to ever fight. This movie does a great job of capturing his spirit and aura. At the end of this movie the viewer is left with the thoughts and the beliefs of Ali and why he fought hard to stand for what he believes in.

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