First a warning, or a reassurance: HBO Films' Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, which premiered October 5, is not a highlight reel of Ali's triumphs over Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. It is instead a behind-the-scenes courtroom drama about an even greater battle--the time that Ali fought the law, and the law lost.
Younger Americans may only know Muhammad All as a silent trembling figure, stricken by Parkinson's disease, a monument to his former self. Whenever the current Ali appears in public, we hear tributes to his courage and integrity, but rarely does anyone explain what he did outside the ring to earn this celebrity sainthood.
For that, you have to go back to Muhammad All in his prime. That was the man who, at his first championship fight, included Malcolm X in his ringside entourage. Shortly thereafter, the new champ announced his conversion to Islam and repudiated his "slave name"--Cassius Marcellus Clay. That Muhammad Ali was the man who, in 1967, refused induction into the U.S. Army because, as he put it, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong."
That's where the story of Ali's vaunted courage and integrity begins. He had the guts to stand against his country's government during a time of war. In 1967 most Americans still supported their president on Vietnam, and Ali's implication that we were a racist nation engaged in a racist war was downright shocking. Retribution was swift. All lost his title as heavyweight boxing champion and was effectively banned from the sport. Meanwhile, the federal government pressed criminal charges and All was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
That's where the HBO film picks up. Ali's lawyers appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, claiming that his religious opposition to the Vietnam War, based on the teaching of the Nation of Islam, should qualify him for conscientious objector status. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court was dominated by liberals who might welcome the opportunity to make a statement against the war.
But by 1971 President Nixon had appointed a new chief justice, Warren Burger (played in the film by Frank Langella), and his "Minnesota twin," Harry Blackmun (Ed Begley Jr.). Those two combined with the moderate Kennedy appointee Byron White and the Eisenhower conservative John Haflan to support the government's case against All. Thurgood Marshall (Danny Glover) had been U.S. solicitor general when the Ali prosecution began, so he recused himself from the case, leaving the vote a 4-4 tie. That meant the lower court ruling would stand. Ali would go to jail, and Justice Harlan (Christopher Plummer) was assigned to write the opinion.
In the film, while the justices deliberate, their young clerks debate the case and bet on its outcome, and the streets of Washington fill with antiwar protestors. At the same time we, the viewers, are treated to numerous archival film clips of Muhammad All explaining himself, his faith, and his view of the war. …