SBD/October 4, 2013/Media

Muhammad Ali Films Explore Fighter's Supreme Court Case Over Draft Refusal

Ali appears only in archival footage in the new docudrama
Two new films centered on Muhammad Ali's involvement with the Nation of Islam and his refusal to be drafted "portray a time when a singular fighter and his extraordinary era intersected in profound ways," according to Richard O'Brien of SI.  "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," which debuts on HBO Sunday and is directed by Stephen Frears, is a "glossy and engaging docudrama that focuses on the Supreme Court's inner-chamber battles in 1971, when the justices rules on Ali's appeal of the conviction that had cost him 3 1/2 years of his career and threatened to send him to jail for five more." Ali appears "only in archival footage, but those glimpses send a jolt through the film, showing not only how vibrant he was but also the depths of the passions that swirled around him." That sense is "amplified in the richly textured and exhaustively researched 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali.'" The documentary from the producers of "Hoop Dreams" was directed by Bill Siegel and opens theatrically this week, combining "archival footage with current-day interviews with figures from Ali's life" (SI, 10/9 issue).

DOESN'T QUITE GO THE DISTANCE: VARIETY's Brian Lowry wrote "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" is "filled with interesting tidbits" but "never quite coalesces." If Frears' "earnest interpretation isn’t quite a missed opportunity, it’s an under-realized one." It is "worth watching for the historical moment it represents -- particularly since that moment continues to echo through to the present -- but it’s less compelling than it might have been" (, 10/2). In S.F., David Wiegand wrote Frears and screenwriter Shawn Slovo "seem to have forgotten" that "films based on historical events work best if they are at least equal parts drama and documentary." The "fundamental problem with the film" is there is "no drama." The actors make the film "seem better than it is, but the real Ali, with all his youth, vigor, bravado and passion, convinces us that he and his case deserved much better" (, 10/2). The AP's Bruce Schreiner wrote the film does "tell a story ... though some liberties are taken for entertainment's sake." It is "surprisingly engrossing ... for a movie that revolves almost entirely around the legal process" (AP, 10/2). The AP's Lynn Elber wrote, "The dynamic Ali is represented by the legend himself through news clips woven effectively into the drama," but the emphasis is on "the camaraderie and give-and-take among the justices" (AP, 10/1).
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