Muhammad Ali: the essential movies

Muhammad Ali - The Greatest poster (crop)

by Owen Williams |
Published on

Following the sad death of Muhammad Ali, here's Empire's pick of the many excellent films to have celebrated his extraordinary life.

Ali The Fighter (1971)

A film focused on Ali’s first attempt to regain his professional boxing heavyweight title: the build-up to the first of Ali’s three epic fights with Joe Frazier is documented here. Director William Greaves had studied at the Actor’s Studio alongside Marlon Brando, but had become disillusioned with the stereotyped parts he was being offered, and moved into TV news journalism, serving for three years as executive producer of PBS’ Black Journal. When he left to pursue filmmaking, this was the first result: the director’s eye for a news story and strong narrative serving Ali well. But it’s no hagiography. Frazier had supported Ali throughout his years of political protest. Ali’s relentless taunting of Frazier in the weeks prior to the fight is therefore the source of some friction...

The Greatest (1977)

Not to be confused with the excellent BBC documentary of the same name, this The Greatest actually sees Ali playing himself in a dramatized biopic covering the 15 years prior to the Rumble In The Jungle. Charismatic he may be… but he isn’t much of an actor. The story’s a bit flat too: most of the controversies in Ali’s then-recent past are airbrushed out and glossed over. But the fights - real footage rather than reconstructions - are obviously thrilling.

The Whole Story (1996)

An immersive, exhaustive six-hour series covering, as you’d expect, Ali’s entire career from Olympic amateur to the Larry Holmes fight and Ali’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease. It includes almost the entire Rumble In The Jungle, as well as footage from The Thrilla In Manila and most of Ali’s other bouts. Copious rival fighters and journalists from throughout his career are interviewed. In fact, the only voice that’s conspicuous by its absence is Ali’s. But while he isn’t one of the talking heads, there’s obviously reams of archive footage to fill the blanks.

When We Were Kings (1996)

Leon Gast’s blockbuster documentary has a central story so captivating that no general interest in boxing is actually required. Covering the infamous 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Ali and the pre-grill George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, the focus is, naturally enough, the aging Ali, who was thought at the time to have little chance of beating Foreman... But his patented ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy –pretending to be in more trouble than you actually are, and cunningly wearing your opponent down in the process – proves devastating.

Stuck in sweltering heat, in Joseph Mobutu’s crazy African dictatorship for six weeks while Foreman recovered from an injury, Gast had unparalleled access to the main players. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, on-hand at the time as journalists, provide the film’s narration. As if the fight and the politics weren’t enough, there’s even some musing on boxing’s seedy underbelly, following promoter Don King as he goes about his dodgy business.

Ali (2001)

A typically meticulous epic by Michael Mann, Ali is a perfect, stylised, heightened companion piece to When We Were Kings. The biopic chronicles ten years in the life of Cassius Clay, from 1964, when he took the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, to 1974 and the Rumble In The Jungle with George Forman. In between, there are the wider issues of Ali’s controversial opposition to the Vietnam War, his conversion to Islam, his banishment from boxing and his initial return against Joe Frazier.

It’s boxing’s key, legendary narrative, but it would be half the film it is without Will Smith at its core. Almost unrecognisable as the lanky Fresh Prince he’d still been playing as recently as five years earlier, Smith is massive, the result of a year’s intensive preparation, training up to seven hours a day. It’s not just the physical bulk that convinces though: Smith also has all the swagger and confidence, vocal tics and peculiar mannerisms that made Ali an enormous personality.

Facing Ali (2009)

This fascinating doc tells Ali’s story from the perspective of ten of his greatest rivals. Some of them even beat him. Whether or not they emerged from the ring victorious or pummelled, however, all speak of him with nothing but the greatest respect.

Muhammad And Larry (2009)

This one’s about the fight between Ali and Larry Holmes in 1980, as Ali once again came out of retirement to take a shot at regaining his title. There’s a pathos here, as a past-his-prime Ali tries to live up to his previous legend, while commentators – and even Holmes himself – lament that it’s not really a fight that should ever have been allowed to happen. Director Albert Maysles also made the Rolling Stones’ brutal Gimme Shelter and the bleak Grey Gardens.

The Trials Of Muhammad Ali (2013)

A PBS documentary focused on Ali’s life outside the ring. Much weight, of course, is given to his refusal of the Vietnam draft and the legal and professional problems it caused him (he faced prison, was stripped of his heavyweight title and had his boxing licence suspended for four years). It’s the key reason he’s viewed as an important cultural figure as well as a sportsman: if you only watch films about his fights, you’re only getting half the story. Context is all.

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013)

Stephen Frears directed this HBO drama, which concerns itself with the behind-the-scenes legal discussions resulting from his refusal to fight in Vietnam. The United States Supreme Court ultimately supported Ali in the 1971 Clay v. United States judgement. This is how it happened… or a version of same. Christopher Plummer plays Justice John Mashall Harlan II, with Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Ed Begley Jr as Justice Harry Blackmun, Danny Glover as Justice Thurgood Marshall and Barry Levinson as Justice Potter Stewart. Some cirticised it as a film about – mostly – white guys talking in rooms: an odd angle for a drama about Muhammad Ali, admittedly. But the story is there, and the performances are strong. Nobody plays Ali, but he does, of course, feature in lots of archive footage.

I Am Ali (2014)

This softer than usual Ali film depicts him as a warm-hearted family man. The main hook are the audio recordings Ali himself mad in the ‘70s and which form the backbone and structure of the film. But there are also tender tributes from friends, family and professional acquaintances, tracing his life both in and out of the boxing ring. Most Ali films are about the fighter, the larger-than-life personality or the political dissident. This one’s just about the bloke. It’s as fitting a tribute as any of them.

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