One of the most eagerly awaited films coming to this year’s Glasgow Film Festival is Cassius X: Becoming Ali, a documentary based on writer and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove’s book, also called Cassius X. SNACK caught up with director Muta’Ali to find out more about the film and its transition from page to screen.
How did you come to be involved with Cassius X: Becoming Ali?
I got a call from Mick McAvoy [executive producer of Cassius X], who was at Two Rivers Media at the time. He reached out to me because he liked my work, and then it took about a year or so before we actually got started on the film. There were lots of stops and starts with Covid, of course, but Mick was very excited about it and sent me Stuart Cosgrove’s book, which I read, and then I got excited as well. I met Stuart and we started planning our vision for this film, and how we were gonna do it with me in the States and them being over in Scotland. We planned it out and things went from there.
Was it a challenge adapting Stuart’s Cosgrove’s book?
It was a challenge, as a filmmaker. First of all, these events took place 60–70 years ago. Who was going to be around to talk to us? It was Mick who was really the one who convinced me, and we got past the challenges and made creative decisions to help tell the story. There’s a lot in Stuart’s book. He covers a lot of the music, which is a big deal. In the film we kind of don’t cover music as much. We cover Muhammad Ali’s boxing journey and spiritual journey, and the music is not such a part of it. Stuart’s book delves more deeply into the subject matter.
What you’ve done, by having some fantastic footage, and also with the interviews, is tell a clear story about this formative time in Muhammad Ali’s life. It’s one which, in the UK, we maybe don’t know that much about. Is it well-known in America?
I haven’t seen a documentary that told us about this era of his life, as far as I can recall. Growing up, you know Muhammad Ali but you don’t know it all. Many people don’t know that he was ever referred to as Cassius X, or even Cassius Clay. And he didn’t talk too publicly about his spiritual journey. There was a lot to learn and, no, I didn’t know much about this part of his life.
Can we talk about the role of Malcolm X at this point? His friendship with the then Cassius Clay was very important.
Malcolm X, at the time when he met Cassius Clay, had a high rank in the Nation of Islam. They bonded with one another. Malcolm X didn’t recruit Cassius Clay to become a part of the Nation – he served more as an older brother who would answer all the questions that Cassius had. During that time in America, in the early sixties, a tremendous amount was going on when it came to racial tension. There was an awakening, when it came to African Americans, about their identities. And so Malcolm X, being such a powerful force, influenced Cassius with his decision to join the Nation, but, of course, their relationship evolved and changed over the years. I was excited to discover that Malcolm X attended some of Muhammad Ali’s boxing matches. He went to the Doug Jones fight and, obviously, he was at the Sonny Liston fight.
However, I think the relationship with Malcolm X at the time did not serve him well when it came to mainstream America accepting him as their champion. As the film shows, mainstream America knew little about the Nation of Islam and what little they did know kind of made them fearful. You know, ‘What is this organisation? What is it about?’.
We have a little bit of that from [American sports commentator] Jim Lampley in the story. Jim loved Muhammad Ali when he was Cassius Clay. He admits it felt traumatic, what he went through when his beloved Cassius Clay changed his identity. I was so grateful that Jim was honest and open with us emotionally about that journey, and he ended up being lifelong friends with Muhammad Ali.
The interviews you get are fantastic, especially considering Covid and lockdowns, etc. Were you able to be in the room with people?
Yes, I was in the room with everyone. We just had to abide by the Covid protocol at that time. That wasn’t the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge, I think, was telling a story about somebody’s spiritual journey that they didn’t write about and didn’t share much about. So we’re using the effect that Cassius Clay had on others, and capturing their testimony about what they felt and what they thought, and what was happening in the world, to tell a story about what his shift in identity was rooted in. That to me was the most challenging thing, because he’s not here to tell his story.
Such a charismatic and articulate figure. It’s easy to see why he became the icon he did, but when you view your interviews you can see how much he meant to these people who encountered him. He still means so much to them. There’s real emotion and excitement, and some of these people are not in the first flush of youth. That connection to Muhammad Ali – you can see it on their faces and hear in their voices.
I think that’s one of the reasons why we chose to do close-ups. There’s a lot of tight shots of everybody speaking, and I really loved the result of that because we got to see what was happening inside of them.
Cassius X: Becoming Ali will be showing at Glasgow Film Festival on the 9th and 10th March.