Remembering Muhammad Ali’s Life on the Big Screen

From his home state of Kentucky to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, from boxing rings to the Supreme Court, Muhammad Ali — who died Friday at the age of 74 — left an incalculable legacy to both America and the world.

It’s fortunate for us that part of that bequest has been well-documented on film over the years, from 1977’s biopic The Greatest to the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. Ali’s magnetic screen presence was undeniable: Had his arena been the movies rather than the ring, there’s no doubt he would have been a contender. He had the magnetic sensuality of the young Marlon Brando, the shy sweetness of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and the ferocity of Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. In newsreels, in film, and on the canvas, Ali was both David and Goliath, and never less than a star.

It’s fair to ask, how many films about The Greatest are truly great? Below is just a sampling of some picks In descending order. They might not all be the greatest boxing movies, but they are something more: Films about the greatest man who just happened to be a boxer.

1. When We Were Kings (1996)

Culled from 250 hours of footage, director Leon Gast’s taut, 84-minute documentary chronicles a watershed moment in American history and how it played out on a foreign stage. In 1974, then-unknown promoter Don King lured former heavyweight world champion Ali and current champ George Foreman to Zaire for a bout for which each would receive $5 million, win or lose. The backstory was already compelling: From 1967 to 1970 — career primetime — Ali was stripped of his title and barred from competing for a refusal to serve in Vietnam. He said his his Islamic faith made him a conscientious objector; the courts said he was a draft dodger. After a Supreme Court reversal, he returned to the ring. “The Rumble in the Jungle” was Ali’s chance to take back the heavyweight crown, but the odds were 7-1 against him.

The swift-moving film telescopes the historic cultural moment and includes interviews with Norman Mailer, who covered the event, and director Spike Lee, among others. In it, Lee astutely observes how the film restores Ali — by 1996, already debilitated by Parkinson’s disease — to his towering glory.

2. Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013)

With its punchy screenplay by Shawn Slovo, director Stephen Frears’ dynamic telefilm contrasts two concurrent, and thrilling, contests. One is a docudrama of the 1970 Supreme Court deliberations on whether to uphold the lower court’s decision on Ali’s draft evasion. The other is a documentary, with news footage of Ali’s refusal to serve and his struggle to fight again. Frears toggles between the gleaming chambers of white power and the resistance of Black Power to great effect.

Frank Langella, in full Darth Vader mode, is Chief Justice Warren Burger, who steers the Court to uphold the decision. Thurgood Marshall (well played by Danny Glover) has to recuse himself due to prior involvement in the case. When Burger assigns Justice John Harlan (an excellent Christopher Plummer) to write the opinion, Harlan encourages his fellow justices to revisit their deliberations and what was at first a split decision against Ali becomes a TKO in his favor.

3. Ali (2001)

Director Michael Mann was smart to cast the charismatic and playful Will Smith as the charismatic and playful Ali, and the actor nicely captures the spirit and mischief — and the political conviction — of the champ. Yet, as I wrote when I reviewed the film, “While Smith gets into Ali’s head and under his skin, the movie around him has more footwork than punch.” Mann gets exceptional performances, but his film — which covers the decade between 1964 and 1974 — is in such a rush, racing between the Big Moments and Ali’s first three marriages, that the audience doesn’t see him in repose or reflection. The film makes vivid Ali’s friendships with sportscaster Howard Cosell (played by an unrecognizable Jon Voight) and cornerman Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx), which beautifully reveal its subject’s humor and heart.

4. The Greatest (1977)

Undeniably corny, this still-fascinating biopic-by-numbers was one of many boxing quickies made to cash in on the success of Rocky, which won the Best Picture Oscar the previous year. (It also boasts the song “The Greatest Love of All,” later made famous by Whitney Houston.) The film covers the period from 1960, when Cassius Clay (as Ali was then known), won gold at the Rome Olympics, to the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Chip McAllister plays the young Clay, before Ali plays himself as a mature man. In a film that also includes grainy documentary footage, it must be said that he is much better unscripted than scripted. Quite fine are James Earl Jones as Malcolm X and Ernest Borgnine as Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer. The movie is a curiosity, but a significant one, because of its star and because of its documentation of how Ali’s dominance in the ring did not spare him the racism outside of it.

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