How do you make a Muhammad Ali movie without Muhammad Ali? That’s one of the challenges for HBO’s “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” directed by Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), which revisits a famous Supreme Court battle from 1971 involving the appeal of Ali’s criminal conviction after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
All of the film’s footage of Ali was pulled from archives (similar to what Frears has done in past films, like with Princess Diana in “The Queen”) and the story focuses primarily on Supreme Court judges and clerks working on the case.
“The idea of casting anybody to play Muhammad Ali seemed so difficult and so distracting in a way,” Frears said during a discussion at the TCA summer press tour.
Instead the film stars Christopher Plummer as John Harlan II, Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Benjamin Walker as Harlan’s new clerk, Kevin Connolly. That, in turn, raises the touchy topic of telling a story involving a prominent African American figure through the eyes of white characters.
“We were making the Supreme Court drama,” writer Shawn Slovo (“A World Apart”) explained. “Apart from Thurgood Marshall, who is played by Danny Glover, all the characters in the film — the judges and the clerks — yeah they’re a bunch of white people, but that was the story we were telling.”
That said, Slovo allowed for some connections to be made between Ali’s case and the recent controversy surrounding the murder trail for Trayvon Martin. “Ali’s conviction — the justices concluded — was a racist conviction,” Slovo said. “That has contemporary relevance to what’s happening today.”
Although Plummer plays a key role in the drama, he revealed he doesn’t remember much about the real life events. “I was living in England at the time,” he recalled. “I knew that Muhammad Ali had been threatened as a conscientious objector. The case itself disappeared off the face of the Earth.”
“There wasn’t a lot about John Harlan to research,” Plummer shared about playing the judge whose ruling is instrumental in the Supreme Court’s final verdict to overturn Ali’s conviction. “I followed Shawn’s script who gave him such warmth and humanity. I thought how wonderful we’re not just looking at an ultra-conservative member of the Supreme Court but the human side.”
“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” premieres Saturday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.