The greatest of all time has checked out. Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, became a superstar in the boxing world and far beyond. He became a multiple world champion in the heavyweight category, and also became a terribly polarising figure in the United States for his outspokenness against the Vietnam War. Throughout his life, he displayed the same drive and ethos, guided by unbending beliefs.
If being guided by ethos, beliefs and strong objectives in an obsessive manner relates to you, indie filmmaker, it’s because there are lots of things you can learn from Muhammad Ali. Here are five of them:
1. Be the best at what you do
Ali was a towering figure, a memorable heavyweight. He burst onto the boxing scene and knocked everybody out, on and off the ring. Not only was he strikingly handsome, he had incomparable drive and displayed unparalleled commitment to the point that he quickly became world champion in the heavyweight category, a title he won repeatedly.
There’s no such thing as being world champion in film or art in general, yet striving to reach your best and fulfil your potential is something artists relate to. Talent is not the point: reaching new heights and gaining recognition takes persistence, single-mindedness and always more work.
2. But not at any cost
Multiple world champion Mohamed Ali reached the status of boxing superstar, and was called the greatest of all time. At the age when athletes reach their peak powers and skills, Ali was drafted to fight in the Vietnam war, which he refused.
He’d become a polarising figure and knew what was at stake, as a public figure, if he refused to join the army. As a consequence, he was stripped of his titles and stopped fighting for almost four years. He still had that aura but didn’t fight.
Making films is a complex, demanding, long-term endeavour. Sometimes, contrary winds, which have nothing to do with what we do for a living, make us stop. And perhaps that speaks louder than anything else.
3. Stand up for your beliefs
Conscientious objection was the statement that “the greatest of all time” made when refusing to be drafted. He’d already been noticed for his links to the civil rights movement and his closeness with Malcolm X.
Public figures and artists have long been messengers of their country’s “soft power”. Not only do they export a set of beliefs, they also hold a mirror to their society. Now it goes faster with social media. And whether through film or outside of it, filmmakers can and have to stand up.
After several years, Ali’s case went to the Supreme Court. He won.
4. Be eloquent
Ali published an autobiography called The Soul of a Butterfly. This may seem counterintuitive as he was the most famous heavyweight boxer of the century. He was one to embrace complexities and his unique life gave him equally unique insight. As a man who was born into times which he eventually changed, as well as being very spiritual, most of the quotes we now see proliferating on social media give us an idea of the man he was and the ethos he lived by.
Filmmakers need to be aware of the times they live as well, in order for their film to make a point which carries resonance.
5. Begin as early as possible
One of the quotes I’ve seen pop up this morning from Ali is: “I’m the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” Young Cassius Clay started boxing age 12 when his bike was stolen. He never ceased to train, hating every minute of it, but knowing that that was the life champions had to lead.
Filmmakers go into their art out of obsession, and because they’re fixated on the end product. Screenwriting gets frustrating, directing grows infuriating, producing turns into a headache. Yet when a film is finished, it’s like earning a world champion belt. In order to finish as soon as possible, begin as early as possible.