The Smithsonian Channel has signed on to air Cassius X: Becoming Ali, a feature-length documentary about boxing legend Muhammad Ali based on a book by Scottish journalist Stuart Cosgrove.
The film is produced by recently launched Glasgow-based indie Two Rivers Media and directed by Muta’Ali, who previously helmed the features Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn and Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee.
Cassius X focuses on the transformative period in Ali’s life when the up-and-coming heavyweight contender was simultaneously growing his public profile as a brash, trash-talking “heel” (a schtick he copped from pro wrestler Gorgeous George), while undergoing a private spiritual journey that would ultimately lead to him joining the Nation of Islam, the controversial Black Muslim movement that many in white America viewed as a borderline terrorist organization.
The increasing media scrutiny of Ali’s out-of-the-ring activities reached its charged peak in the lead-up to the young challenger’s Miami showdown with reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in February 1964, especially given the presence of Malcolm X in Ali’s camp as a “spiritual advisor.”
The new film is the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible series of documentary projects on the inexhaustible subject of Ali. Last year alone saw not only the premiere of Ken Burns’ four-part Muhammad Ali on PBS, but also that of Netflix’s Blood Brothers, which examines the relationship and eventual falling-out between Ali and Malcolm, as the rechristened champion forswore his former friend after the latter broke ties with the Nation of Islam.
“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,” said Mick McAvoy, head of factual production at Two Rivers Media. “[The Smithsonian Channel's] 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.”
“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,” Muta’Ali said. “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 archival material, Cassius X will feature interviews with such Ali intimates as Malcolm X’s daughter Attallah Shabazz, R&B singer Dee Dee Sharp (Ali’s girlfriend during the period covered by the film), longtime HBO boxing broadcaster Jim Lampley, and writer and veteran boxing journalist Thomas Hauser, author of the authorized biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
The film will air in the US and UK later in 2022.