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New documentary 'What's My Name | Muhammad Ali' tells his story through his own words

'What's My Name | Muhammad Ali' trailer

This two-part documentary explores Muhammad Ali's challenges and triumphs through recordings of his own voice. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick, "What's My Name | Muhammad Ali" premieres May 14 at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

The idea would have been impractical for most public figures from an era before video of everyone and everything became ubiquitous. But this was no ordinary public figure; it was Muhammad Ali.

Thus did the director Antoine Fuqua propose making a two-part documentary for HBO that included not a single interview with current-day talking heads – no new anything, really.

Just Ali, and some of his contemporaries, talking and talking, with plenty of vintage boxing footage mixed in.

“It was an easy decision for me when I thought of it,” Fuqua said of “What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and will come to HBO on May 14.

“Then I took it to the team, and it was a difficult decision when we realized, ‘Can we pull this off?’ Because you have to find enough material of Ali that is taking you on this journey. You don’t know it’s going to work until you actually dig in and take that risk.”

The risk was relatively low, given Ali’s gift of gab and love of the limelight, which resulted in a massive trove of interviews, some seen frequently in the decades since and some not at all.

“We got blessed with footage coming in all the way up to the last day of editing - begging and pleading and calling,” Fuqua said. “Luckily, everybody came through, for him. But it wasn’t easy. It was a four-year journey.”

Ali, who died in 2016 at 74, is one of the most well-chronicled humans of the late 20th century, so finding something new to add to his story is difficult.

“What’s My Name” does not set out to do that as much as chronicle Ali’s evolution from brash, bright-eyed kid to serious-minded activist to a man grown slow and old before his time to global goodwill ambassador – almost entirely in his words.

“When I met with the team at SpringHill and HBO I was very clear that the only way this works is if Muhammad Ali can tell his story of his professional life as he saw it,” Fuqua said. “So I set out to do that.”

The aforementioned “SpringHill Entertainment” includes LeBron James and Maverick Carter as executive producers.

Fuqua said James, a 21st century athlete of some renown, was kept abreast of the production throughout. “He was very passionate about Muhammad Ali,” Fuqua said.

The goal was finding material that had not been seen before, with the help of Ali’s widow, Lonnie, and other relatives and friends, including promoter Don King. The result was more than 1,000 hours of footage.

Fuqua said it helped that most people knew in real time that photos, video and audio recordings of Ali had special meaning, and treated them that way.

“It was preserved,” he said. “It wasn’t thrown in a garage and forgotten. People took great care of it and expected us to get it back for them.”

Ali’s genius for entertaining and reeling in the middle-aged, white male journalists of the era is on full display, as is his serious side.

Among the most startling story threads is the insistence of many, including in the black community, that he still be called Cassius Clay rather than Muhammad Ali.

In 1967, Ernie Terrell pointedly refused to call him “Ali” before their fight, which Ali won easily while shouting “What’s my name?” so angrily that he can be heard saying it on the half-century-old video.

“He was that upset; he was that loud,” Fuqua said. “I think the fact he was a black man hurt him really more. He called the guy an ‘Uncle Tom.’ . . . When you see Ali say, ‘What’s my name?’ you can see the fire. You can hear it."

Fuqua added, “It was so humiliating and hurtful, and it wasn’t just white people who were disrespecting the man. That was expected in that era, unfortunately. But black people, his own people, wouldn’t even call him by his name.”

What does Fuqua, 53, hope viewers too young to recall Ali’s heyday get out of the film?

“He proved that courage doesn’t mean anything unless you‘re willing to put something on the line, put your whole success on the line,” he said. “I think today we need more of that to fight for what’s right and fairness, at any cost.

“I think young people can learn you don’t always have to do it with vinegar. He did it with a touch of honey . . . He knew how to speak the truth and have you smiling and laughing about it while you’re thinking about it.”

As much as Ali left behind to mine for a director in 2019, what might it have been like had he come along a half-century later?

“He left us a lot of great footprints, but can you imagine today, with Instagram and Twitter?” Fuqua said. “Oh, my God.”

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