Muhammad Ali was everything for his time – and he was certainly more than just punches in the ring. Though he demonstrated throughout his heavyweight boxing career that there was more to the sport than simply being all talk and quick feet, it was also his existence outside boxing arenas that defined his true legacy. Born Cassius Clay Jr., in an era of severe racial discrimination and segregation in the United States, he converted to Islam soon after winning the heavyweight title for the first time against Sonny Liston. As a brash 20-something, Ali believed in fighting fire with fire, and mistook pro-black to be anti-white, making the kind of mistakes most suppressed voices do. But he quickly became more than a flawed champion; his biggest battle came when he refused to fight as an American soldier in Vietnam: "My fight ain’t against no Viet-congs". He was banned from the sport and stripped off his heavyweight title for three long years, before coming back and capturing the world’s imagination in the 70s.
Expectedly, cinema has long found inspiration in the legend of Ali. Surprisingly, only one of these films have dared to be a biopic on the fighter, with the rest being documentaries or behind-the-scenes dramas. Perhaps his is too vast and inexplicable a legacy to capture fully on celluloid, though Michael Mann did come pretty close.
The one and only "real" film on Ali, it features Will Smith in a career-changing Oscar-nominated performance. An inspired casting decision, considering Smith was sort of a scrawny and playful ‘quintessential box-office star’ before this one. He put his everything into becoming Ali, and literally internalized the man’s aura, as the film captured the decade between 1964 and 1974 – from his title-winning bout against Liston, his marriages and flings, his early friendship with Malcolm X, his friendships with sportscaster Howard Casell, those dark three years as a result of the Vietnam furore, his return and loss against Joe Frazier, followed by ‘The Rumble In The Jungle‘ at Kinshasa and title-winning bout against George Foreman. If this sounds like way too much to cover, it is – because the film doesn’t really take a breath to introspect, feeling like a speed racer, much like himself in the ring. It makes an impact only with the performances and Emmanuel Lubezki’s visceral cinematography.
MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST FIGHT (2013)
This little TV film, written by Stephen Frears, focuses on how a senior eight-man panel of judges of the United States Supreme Court decided to rule in favor of Ali in the Clay v/s United States case and upturn his conviction in 1971, which laid the path for his eventual return and rise back to the top of the world. It pitches a slightly bigoted Chief Justice (Frank Langella) against the retiring liberal Justice Marshall (a brilliant Christopher Plummer) – and how a young law graduate and clerk of Marshall’s office may have changed the whole thing around by convincing the old man to back off from his stance. This is a verbose film, but gives us a searing insight into the workings of the administration, a bit of cheekiness, and how the wise old men of the court may just have paved the way for Ali’s legendary fights between 1971 and 1976. This is, to date, one of the most underrated films about – and not on – Ali.
I AM ALI (Documentary, 2014)
This little-known documentary captures the true essence of Ali as just another man outside the ring. With real behind-the-scenes footage and audio clips, the film portrays the champion as an endearing persona, as told to the camera by family and friends, and even tells us why – as a child – Clay decided to take up boxing. (hint: to avenge a petty theft). To date, the world must thank the man/kid who stole his bicycle. For, if not for that thief, there would have been no Muhammad Ali.
WHEN WE WERE KINGS (Documentary, 1996)
This Oscar-winning documentary takes us behind the scenes – with several elaborate interviews with journalists and others – of the greatest boxing match of all time, the ‘Rumble In The Jungle‘ in 1976 in Zaire, between Ali and giant George Foreman. We feel the tension, as the film almost moves in real time towards the main event, with footage of Ali charming African journalists with his fiery anecdotes about race and conviction. The match, too, is broken down into little events, giving us a superb peek into perhaps the most significant sporting event of the century.