Producer Bill Gerber Promises ‘What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali’ Will Inspire & Enlighten
The story of Muhammad Ali has been told onscreen in various ways, from traditional documentaries to Will Smith playing him in a major motion picture. With this in mind, those behind HBO’s upcoming two-part doc What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali took a different approach by solely chronicling the historical triumphs and tribulations through his own voice thanks to hours of archival footage.
Executive producer Bill Gerber (A Star Is Born) recalls as a consultant for the Ali estate hearing pitches from different companies about doing documentaries. He wasn’t particularly impressed. They wanted someone involved that would be exciting.
Enter NBA superstar LeBron James, who idolized “The Greatest.” Thanks to associate Paul Wachter, the pieces began coming together in bringing him on board.
“LeBron is such a superstar in every way as an athlete and humanitarian. Immediately, he had a lot of good will,” Gerber said. “When we called HBO, Muhammad Ali with LeBron as an executive producer, it was an immediate yes. An intoxicating combination.”
The evolution of Cassius Clay into Ali, his ascension to the top of the boxing world, standing up for his religious beliefs, the ramifications of refusing to draft in the military, coming out of retirement, his charitable efforts, battling through a health deterioration due to Parkinson’s syndrome — it’s all in there, with Ali’s charismatic personality and poetic way with words shining throughout.
“[Director and executive producer] Antoine Fuqua didn’t want to do another talking head piece,” Gerber said. “He was determined to let Ali tell his own story.”
The first part ends following the loss to Joe Frazier, ending a legendary streak of wins. This was by design demonstrating how the multi-time heavyweight champion got knocked down but refused to stay down for the count. A message we can all take from.
“They went through so many different archives to come up with the pieces that would help Antoine articulate the narrative that he wanted to. They were tireless,” Gerber said. “There were things that we didn’t clear until the eleventh hour. Just rare boxing footage. I think people are going to be surprised, even the ones who know his story well are going to be surprised about some of the gems that are in there with Dick Cavett and others.”
The project premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and saw Lonnie, Ali’s wife for 30 years right up to his passing in 2016. Gerber felt having her presence made for a spiritual experience.
“The response so far has been tremendous. There is so much about this story people didn’t know,” he said. “That’s exciting to be part of bringing that much more of Muhammad Ali to the world. We watched it many times, and it’s always amazing when you’re producing. I can’t say it’s always the case that you’re looking forward to seeing the film for the 25th or 30th time. But I will say in this case it’s the truth.”
Gerber believes audiences will leave with a newfound respect for what this larger-than-life individual accomplished inside and outside the ring. A look at the man like never before.
“I can’t think of a bigger bad ass,” he said. “This is a guy who stood down the American government, the military, white supremacy, the boxing commission, religious adversity. There is no challenge he didn’t have to deal with in his lifetime. And he brought the same championship intellect and resiliency to every one of them.
What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali, Tuesday, May 14, 8/7c, HBO