Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: The Thrilla in Manila, Ali and Frazier, and the Politics of Memory

HBO is airing a great special this weekend on the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This documentary, Thrilla in Manila, is exciting and noteworthy because it presents the epic battles between these two men from the under appreciated, and little spoken to point of view of Joe Frazier.

As I have noted many times, Muhammad Ali is one of my personal heroes. But, many forget how complicated and conflicted Ali the man, as opposed to the myth, actually was.

As the great book Ghosts of Manila details, Ali could be cruel, selfish, and mercurial. Thus, Ali-Frasier was so powerful a rivalry precisely because it was so intensely personal. To that point, Ali (as he also did with Foreman and Liston) was able to present himself as the "authentic" black man, while he portrayed his opponents as "Uncle Toms." Ironically, Ali trafficked in some of the worst racial stereotypes to demean his opponents, when in fact, Ali was much more privileged in his childhood and upbringing, and in this imaginary more "White", than either Liston, Foreman, or Frazier.

Not surprisingly, given that his show routinely features some of the most honest and real conversations about race in this country, this past week Howard Stern had a great discussion about the politics of black authenticity in the Ali-Frazier rivalry.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Some quick thoughts. One, while funny at the time, I would suggest in hindsight that there was indeed something pernicious and foul in Ali's calling Frazier a "gorilla" and a "monkey." Two, did you know that Ali spoke to a KKK rally where he reiterated their shared commitment to racial separatism? So, was Ali a hero or a villain? Or was he a little of both? Who was the real hero of the Ali-Frazier rivalry? Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali?


msladyDeborah said...

Wasn't Ali just fortifying the believes of the Nation of Islam at that time? The Honorable Elijah Muhamad use to firmly believe that "association brings on assimilation".

I saw the original fight and watched Ali throughout his career as a boxer. I have always had mixed feelings about him. On one hand he definitely handled his business in the ring. He did talk a lot of smack during his career. What worked then definitely would not play too well now.

I didn't watch the HBO special. I am hoping to check it out and see how I feel about that moment now.

This is my first visit to your site and I will definitely be back to visit.

chaunceydevega said...

@ms deborah. i hope we have won a fan. what was it like to have seen the fight in its original context?

chauncey devega

Anonymous said...

I to have begun to have mixed feelings about Ali the more that I have learned about him.

I do think that he was a courageous man for standing against Vietnam, i do think that he was a powerful voice for blacks as well. But he was also divisive, and a race baiter and a womanizer. How could he say those things about Fraizer? Especially after Fraizer spoke out on his behalf, gave him $ when Ali was broke, supported him and stood by him when very few others would?

It is viewing him in a different light, and its not so pretty as the images that we have been forced fed. I still appreciate what the man did and he is a hero.But I am aware that he was a man, conflicted, and full of flaws. Some very unsettling flaws.