Aged just 22, Cassius Clay brought about one of the biggest upsets the professional boxing world had ever seen when in 1964 he beat Sonny Liston and became the world heavyweight champion. Shortly after he joined the Nation Of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. As early as 1965 Ali voiced his opinion of disapproval of the war being waged in Vietnam by America. In 1967, while still undefeated and being totally unafraid to tell the American white establishment its own shortcomings in terms of treatment of people of colour, Ali received notification he would be drafted into the US Army for active duty. He cited his own religious beliefs along with his oppostion of the war and refused to be conscripted. These actions led to his arrest and he was charged and found guilty of draft evasion. Almost immediately he was stripped of his boxing title and subsequently given a jail sentence of 5 years and a fine of $10,000. Ali lodged an appeal which would takes several years to resolve.
Even though the US government took away his belt, banned him from boxing and confiscated his passport, thereby denying him the right to fight abroad, obviously with the intention of shutting down any means of a livelihood, Ali continued to be seen and heard, from newspapers, TV, college lecture appearences to even acting on Broadway in a musical called 'Buck White'. The situation was made even harder for the judges as America found iteself in a period of upheaval and transition with many of its rebellious youth in total agreement with the boxer's opposition to the war. As one of the judges proclaims in the film, "These days, Ali is a hero for taking a stand. People are not going to like it if we send him to jail". But there is conflict among the 9 as is shown when Chief Justice Warren Burger (Langella) asks "How can a man, any man, regardless of colour, turn around when he is called to serve our country, and say 'Hell no, I won't go'?"
How the learned lawmakers reach their decision is the basis of the film, with many scenes of white men in offices discussing the law. In theory it should be a bore to watch, yet this is not the case simply because of the explosive subject matter. Would America have treated Ali in the exact same way had he not been black, a member of the Nation Of Islam and so loud about the injustices happening at home? This is an undercurrent question which plays througout the movie and leaves the viewer to make up their own mind. An extemely well thought out approach to the film is spear headed by the masterstroke of not hiring an actor to play Ali. Instead the dramatic scenes are intercut with real archive footage of the man himself, which makes perfect sense. His image, voice, and sheer presence (along with his irresistible sense of humour) is so potent that every time he is on screen you are instantly transported back to that time with a truth and honesty. Some of the footage is a wonder to behold, including an incredible clip from The Ed Sullivan Show with Ali in full costume, singing from his Broadway show. You very quickly understand how this poor black kid from Louisville, Kentucky went on to captivate the whole world. Even though you know the outcome of Ali's appeal, you cannot help being caught in the drama of the decision making. I can understand why HBO (known for their quality output) got involved with the production of this fascinating film as Hollywood would not consider this a commercially viable vehicle. Yet this story deserves to be seen and will be.
'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight' will be shown on HBO in the US on Saturday 5th October and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Wednesday 9th October.
Here is a clip from the film featuring Danny Glover as Judge Thurgood Marshall: