Don’t let the title fool you — this film is not about Ali taking down Frazier. As it turns out, Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight was not in the ring.
Written by Shawn Slovo and directed by Stephen Frears, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight tells the story of Ali’s famous courtroom battle. After being drafted to the Vietnam War, Ali claimed conscientious objector status on religious grounds, which therefore lead to years of dodging punches from the U.S. judicial system before finally facing the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.But Frears’ latest film takes the focus away from Ali and puts the camera on the nine Supreme Court justices, lead by Christopher Plummer’s John Harlan and Frank Langella’s Warren Burger, who took on the case.
The movie, which spans only a few weeks according to Frears, balances telling Ali’s story with that of the justices and the over-arching story of how America changed. ”It’s an incredibly interesting way of telling Ali’s story. I’m told that there’s never been a film about the Supreme Court before, but then it’s a very original way of telling this bit of his story,” Frears says. “When you read books about that period in the Supreme Court, which was six months before Roe v. Wade, there’s always a lot about other cases. Nobody’s hardly written about it, so it’s incredibly interesting.”
But for Ali’s portion of the story, the film relies 100 percent on archival footage. ”One of the things they were doing was building up his character because he was such an interesting and articulate man,” Frears says. “You have actors playing characters and you have another person fully in archive. I’ve never actually seen that in a film before. He’s all in archive, so balancing that was a tricky job.”
As an Ali fan himself, Frears says the film, which he claims is the first time he’s made a film “about America,” opened his eyes to Ali’s struggle. “For the first time, I fully understood the injustice that was done to him when he wasn’t allowed to fight for three and a half years and had his passport taken away. He was sort of ruined.”
Struck by how many people got the story of Ali’s legal battle wrong in the past, Frears is most interested in how a certain group of people will react to his film: “I keep saying, ‘Have they showed it to any justices yet?’”
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight will have a screening on May 22 at Cannes for badgeholders and will premiere on HBO in the fall.