Behind The Scenes

Director has familial ties to Ali: The Mission, latest 30 for 30 short film, debuting today on

Amani Martin's father, Nathaniel Martin (L), next to Muhammad Ali. (Photo courtesy of Amani Martin)
Amani Martin’s father, Nathaniel Martin (l), next to Muhammad Ali. (Photo courtesy of Amani Martin)

Ali: The Mission, narrated by musician John Legend, debuts today on and delves into perhaps one of the most important, but least known, feats of Muhammad Ali’s remarkable life.

In 1990, the boxing legend negotiated for the release of U.S. civilians taken hostage in Iraq. On Jan. 16, 1991, only six weeks after Ali brought 15 hostages back home to their relieved families, Operation Desert Storm commenced on Iraq.

The director, Amani Martin, had a personal reason for his interest to make this film and he shared his heartfelt story with Front Row’s Jay Jay Nesheim.

When I got the opportunity to direct Ali: The Mission, I jumped on it. How often do you get a chance to tell a story few people know about one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and well-documented people?

And it happened to be a story that illustrates so much of Muhammad Ali’s greatness outside the ring: his deep humanitarian convictions, a willingness to take on risk to uphold his principles, and a knack for embedding his voice and aura into major historical events.

But making this film also held a powerful, personal allure.

My admiration for Ali has its roots in my father’s profound esteem for The Greatest. My father was in awe of Ali’s boxing prowess, but more significantly, was inspired by Ali’s courage outside the ring in fighting for civil rights and social justice. My dad, Nathaniel Martin, was actively involved in fighting the same fight. His focus was on the many social and economic challenges facing his beloved hometown of Bronx, N.Y.

So I can’t imagine the joy and pride my father felt standing next to Ali at this public event outside the Bronx Supreme Court (pictured above), about two blocks from the old Yankee Stadium in the neighborhood where my father grew up and became a small business owner and community organizer. That’s my dad on the left side of the photo, standing next to Ali in 1983, two years after Ali’s retirement, and only a year before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disorder.

I don’t know exactly why Ali was in the South Bronx that day. I don’t know what role my father had in bringing him there. To me, it doesn’t really matter. Two years ago, my father passed away after a decade-long bout with polymyositis, a debilitating muscular disease. When I look at this photo, it reminds me of my father’s adult prime, when he was healthy, robust, and spirited. And it puts a smile on my face, seeing him standing next to his hero; a hero I would take on as my own.

Ali: The Mission can be viewed here.

The Los Angeles Times published this preview.

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