The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Sports Diplomacy Division hosted a global film screening of the documentary “City of Ali” for U.S. embassies in 20 countries around the globe. The film focused on the life and legacy of boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, who was an inspiration to the world, not only for his athletic accomplishments, but also for his fight against racial injustice and all forms of hatred and prejudice.
The documentary begins with the international celebration of life for Ali, in his beloved hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Growing up in the segregated neighborhood of Parkland taught Ali valuable life lessons in self-worth and resiliency. He also received support from the local business community who provided him with the financial backing to launch his boxing career. The Mayor of Louisville admired him for being a fierce warrior in the ring but also a fierce warrior of kindness and compassion, which led him to become one of the greatest humanitarians of all time.
Although Ali experienced much success, it didn’t come without adversity. As a young adult he became invested in political issues in America and his stances were unpopular with the public. His decision to refuse induction into the draft for the Vietnam War brought on criticism, which ultimately cost him his title and earned him prison time. He found it hypocritical to fight a war in another country when he believed Black people in America were being treated unfairly. As a man guided by his principles and values, Ali stood firm in his decision to protest the war but eventually became well respected again for his undeniable boxing talent and strong moral character.
The City of Ali project also featured a timely and dynamic panel discussion with prominent athletes, activists, scholars, filmmakers, and government officials on the role of sport in the promotion of peace, equality, and social change. The discussion featured NBA All-Star and Team USA Gold Medalist, Allan Houston, the Mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, City of Ali filmmakers, Graham Shelby and Jonathan McHugh, and Muhammad Ali's wife and activist, Lonnie Ali. Farah Pandith, Muslim-American scholar and leading expert on countering violent extremism, moderated the informative and engaging discussion.
“City of Ali” director Graham Shelby gave his inspiration for creating the film. He said “the documentary is a unique celebration and no one lived a life in human history quite like Ali. Combined with being a civil rights humanitarian and world champion, what made him special is that he made people feel good about themselves. He used his celebrity to inspire people. His choices were true and authentic to who he was.” Shelby and the film’s producer Jonathan McHugh felt compelled to tell Ali’s amazing story to ensure that he will always be remembered for his great work for generations to come.
The panel discussion also explored sports as a common thread, which unites people from all walks of life. Ali’s wife and activist “Lonnie” Ali said the documentary expresses how Ali wanted to be remembered. He saw goodness in all people during his travels around the world and just as we are different, we still have universal truths. Although Ali was a devout Muslim, his last wishes included a memorial service that included people from different faiths. He wanted the service to be a teaching moment that people from different beliefs can come together and be respectful.
Sports diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences and bring people together. Participation in sports teaches leadership, teamwork, and communication skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives. To learn more about State Department Sports Diplomacy, follow the program on Twitter @SportsDiplomacy and Facebook @sportsdiplomacy division.