We frequently observe the kids of celebrities and athletes and think to ourselves, “Man, how good is life for them?” Being the offspring of one of the most well-known people on earth must seem like a dream come true on paper. These young people seem to win the lottery of life and begin their lives on third base. That isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes having to live in the shadow of famous parents can cast a large cloud on their lives, and that is very much the case for famed boxer Muhammad Ali’s only son, Muhammad Ali, Jr and presented in Chad A. Verdi & Tom DeNucci’s latest documentary My Father Muhammad Ali.
Right at the beginning of My Father Muhammad Ali, we a treated to a story from Muhammad Ali Jr’s life that wasn’t so pleasant. At the age of 14, his father and mother had already divorced, and Ali took his son on a road trip for the two to bond. When they stopped at a gas station, Muhammad Ali Jr. went to the bathroom after stretching his legs, and his father just straight up left him at a gas station on the highway. Muhammad Ali Jr. managed to call his father’s new wife, who then got in contact with her husband to turn around and pick his son up.
The legendary Ali said that he simply forgot his son was in the car with him when his son asked his father why he had abandoned him. However, a psychologist who was consulted for the documentary My Father Muhammad Ali tells the audience that this couldn’t have happened this early in Ali’s disease. Muhammad Ali Jr. blamed it on his father’s Parkinson’s disease, which wasn’t diagnosed at the time instead of dealing with the possibility that his father didn’t want him. This is one of the first times Muhammad Ali Jr. has had to deal with abandonment from his father, which caused a great deal of trauma for him that he is still working through to this day.
My Father Muhammad Ali explores the troubled life of Muhammad Ali Jr. In addition to dealing with a father who wasn’t there and had his own father had issues regarding marital infidelity, Muhammad Ali Jr. had to deal with a compounded number of issues that stemmed from his relationship with his father and his father’s legacy. Ali Jr. struggled with bullying, abandonment, drugs, mental health issues, and even his own marital infidelity issues, which led to him being divorced and estranged from his own children.
While his life was rough, Muhammad Ali Jr.’s story isn’t 100% terrible. Through his abandonment from his own family (after his parents divorced, he was forced to live with his grandparents, so he really didn’t spend much time with his mother either), he was able to find a new family. His high school teacher who helped him deal with bullies to made fun of his father’s Parkinson’s condition became his father figure. As we meet this man and his family, you can see a lot of love was shared with Ali Jr., so much so that Ali calls his former teacher every Father’s Day to wish his “second dad” a happy Father’s Day. There’s a touching (and sad at the same time) moment where Ali Jr. reveals he wasn’t allowed to his father’s funeral, so he was honored to be asked by his second dad (who was dealing with terminal cancer) to be one of the pallbearers for his second dad’s funeral. Ali also befriended a retired NYPD cop and the two hit it off so well, they became business partners and eventually, brothers.
While My Father Muhammad Ali gives us a lot of time with Ali Jr. and we get to know him, it still feels like we don’t know him that well. When we first learn of Ali Jr.’s marital issues and his strained relationship with his children, we aren’t given the full context until a little later in the film, which can be jarring. Perhaps it was the filmmakers’ decision to tell his story out of order so we, the audience, feel the same amount of narrative chaos that Ali Jr. was telling his story with, but it makes the documentary a little confusing. At times, the documentary seems to be telling a one-sided story that is favorable to Muhammad Ali Jr., but they try and balance things by interviewing a psychologist (who also interviews Ali Jr.) to give a more balanced approach to Ali Jr. and his own struggles with mental health. My Father Muhammad Ali also interviews one of Ali Jr.’s children (his daughter he had outside of his marriage as his ex-wife and his two children did not participate in the documentary) and she doesn’t hold back on how difficult he made her life by not being there for her.
While My Father Muhammad Ali does give a hopeful ending as things are moving in the right direction for Muhammad Ali Jr., the film feels flat as the ending was incredibly rushed towards its conclusion. Now, this might be because the documentary was filmed during the pandemic as many times everyone interviewed was masked up. But the film still doesn’t really tell us its premise. One would think that with a title like My Father Muhammad Ali, it would be about Ali Jr.’s relationship with his father, but, unfortunately, there was no real relationship for the film to explore. Instead, we got a surface-level view of addiction, family trauma, and the hope for a better future. While that is engaging, it kind of left us wanting to know more.
Overall, My Father Muhammad Ali is an interesting film. The one thing it gets right, is it gives Muhammad Ali Jr. a space to try and process his life and his relationship with his famous father. The film surely was a great exercise in therapeutic exploration for Ali Jr. He gets to honor his father and also deal with the trauma that his father caused him. Hopefully, this makes him a better person, and can have more success in life.
My Father Muhammad Ali is currently in select theaters and On Demand.