Smithsonian Channel greenlights Muhammad Ali origin doc

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Smithsonian Channel has greenlit the feature length documentary Cassius X: Becoming Ali from leading Scottish indie, Two Rivers Media. Exploring the transformation of Cassius Clay into international boxing icon and activist, Muhammad Ali, Cassius X: Becoming Ali is the first commission from Two Rivers for Smithsonian Channel. 

Cassius X: Becoming Ali (2×60 mins for TV broadcast) will be directed by Muta’Ali, the award-winning film director. It is slated to air in the US and UK in 2022. 

Muta’Ali’s most recent feature documentary, HBO’s Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn, was released on the 30th anniversary of the murder of the Black Brooklyn teenager whose death sparked protests and exposed deep racial divide. His films also include Hear Her Voice and Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee.

Based on the book by Stuart Cosgrove, Cassius X: Becoming Ali puts a period of often-overlooked history into the spotlight – the period when Cassius Clay fought his way to achieving his lifelong dream of becoming World Heavyweight Champion while, at the same time, embarking on a secret spiritual journey.  As he honed his boxing skills to face the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston, Clay was also exploring and embracing the beliefs of the controversial Nation of Islam.  The film explores the painful birth of an icon, when in the days ahead of the biggest fight of his life Clay would risk everything – his career, his public persona, his relationship with his family and even the love of a popstar girlfriend – for his new religion. The film features interviews with Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter; Dee Dee Sharp, R&B singer and girlfriend of Ali in the early 60s; Jim Lampley, a friend of Ali and a boxing broadcasting legend; Thomas Hauser, Ali’s biographer; as well as a number of lifelong friends of Ali.  It also hears from veteran sports writers, who covered the events at the time, such as Robert Lipsyte and Jerry Izenberg.

Exploring the life of Cassius Clay as he undergoes his spiritual transformation as well as examining the evolution of his amazing boxing skills, this landmark film is structured around the early years of his boxing career between 1959 and 1964 when he turned professional and pursued his dream of becoming World Heavyweight Champion.  From his first contact with the Nation of Islam to the moment when he is given the name Muhammad Ali, we reveal the events in America that would shape his beliefs and examine the figures such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X who would become his spiritual advisors. Featuring interviews with people with a direct connection to these moments in Ali’s life, Cassius X: Becoming Ali examines the influences on Ali’s awakenings with regard to owning his own identity – the Nation of Islam, integration vs. separation, and the thoughts and perspectives and beliefs he adopts.  It is Ali’s origin story – the definitive observation of the emergence of a hero.

Dan Wolf, Executive Producer, Smithsonian Channel, said: “We’re proud to have this film under our banner. This is a taut, riveting story of personal choice and transformation – under the white-hot lights of fame and the backdrop of cultural upheaval. Cassius X: Becoming Ali boils it all down to the compelling coming-of-age moments of a young man who just turned 18. You can’t fully understand Muhammad Ali until you know the intimate story of this short, intense period in his life.”

Mick McAvoy, Head of Factual, Two Rivers Media, says: “Cassius X: Becoming Ali stands apart from many documentaries about Muhammad Ali by framing its story primarily on Ali’s life experiences between 1959 and 1964.  It was a pivotal period, which would change his life forever. With access to incredible archive and interviews with those who witnessed these events first-hand, this film will reveal the birth of one of the world’s first global superstars, giving a fuller context to the social landscape that made Muhammad Ali one of the 20th century’s greatest icons, with a legacy no less powerful half a century on. Smithsonian Channel is the perfect partner for this project.  Their expertise in modern history, along with access to their rich archive, allows us to make a film that is not just another Muhammad Ali film, but something unique and definitive.”

Muta’Ali , Director, Cassius X: Becoming Ali, adds: “It’s both an honour and a privilege to direct a documentary about Muhammad Ali. I have intimate knowledge of what it’s like being a black Muslim in America and this portion of Ali’s life – filled with triumph, challenges, love, and courage – is nothing short of inspiring. Cassius X: Becoming Ali is my interpretation of Ali’s spiritual and intellectual transformation, rooted in the conversations I’ve had on camera with people who knew him at the time. Though Ali didn’t share this part of his life with many people, I believe understanding Ali requires this inside look at his spiritual and ideological journey through racism, xenophobia, and early 1960s America.”

In addition to backing from the Smithsonian Channel, the project has secured support from The National Lottery and the Scottish Government through Screen Scotland.  

Mark Thomas at Screen Scotland comments: “For their second feature documentary, Two Rivers have put together an exciting team of award-winning Director Muta’Ali and the Smithsonian Channel for Cassius X: Becoming Ali, bringing Stuart Cosgrove’s book on a pivotal time in the iconic boxer Muhammad Ali’s life to the big screen. The film marks another example of a high-profile, international feature.”


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