Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella headline HBO’s fascinating new film Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which weaves scripted drama of the Supreme Court justices at work with pithy archival footage of Ali to display — through the prism of Ali’s conscientious-objector crusade— the high court’s vivid inner workings at a revolutionary time in America’s social and political landscape. Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight premieres Oct. 5 at 8/7CT on HBO.
1964 was a knockout year for young Cassius Clay. The cocky, verbose 22-year-old stunned boxing fans by beating fearsome belt-holder Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title, then revealed that he’d followed his mentor, Malcolm X, into the Nation of Islam, becoming a devout Muslim and adopting the name Muhammad Ali.
Three years later, with America’s military presence in Vietnam escalating, the draft came calling for the world-renowned boxer. In keeping with his faith, which he said dictated that Muslims could only wage wars declared by God, Ali refused induction. Found guilty of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and stripped of his title and World Boxing Association license, he appealed his conviction with the same fervor he brought to the ring.
For Ali, being a conscientious objector was as much about human rights as it was about religion. “I just don’t think I should go 10,000 miles from here to shoot some black people who never called me n—-r, never lynched me, never put dogs on me, never raped my mama, enslaved me and deprived me of freedom,” he explained. For the next four years, in what should have been the prime of his boxing career, he instead cobbled together a living from personal appearances while his case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1971.
It is here where HBO’s engrossing new film Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight picks up the tale.
Written by Shawn Slovo and inventively directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), the film weaves scripted drama of the justices at work with pithy archival footage of Ali to display, through the prism of Ali’s crusade, the Supreme Court’s vivid inner workings at a revolutionary time in America’s social and political landscape.
At the heart of the tale are Justice Warren E. Burger (Frank Langella), a staunch conservative elevated to chief justice by then President Richard Nixon, and Justice John Marshall Harlan II (Christopher Plummer), an Eisenhower appointee and grandson of progressive Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan. Though great friends, Burger saw his role as an extension of the Nixon White House, while Harlan clearly reveled in the majesty of the law and the court as a living, evolving body — and in watching a new generation of legal minds and societal influences take shape.
The Ali case left the two at loggerheads as each man considered his legacy and Harlan — recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and watching his wife fade from Alzheimer’s disease — realized this case could be his last.
Slovo says she found it an exhilarating challenge to convincingly flesh out the actions of a legal body made up of nine men about whom so little is written.
“There is enough there for you to extrapolate — to give you a grounding in order to build the drama between the men, even though it’s not detailed in one particular source,” she explains of her research process. “Like any institution, from the outside [the court] might seem impenetrable, but these are men with likes and dislikes and opinions, so there’s bound to be drama there. Because they’re not just justices, they’re human beings with all the prejudices that come with being human. So you pick up all these tidbits from their lives, and then you’re able to create the characters in a very dimensional way.”
Plummer agrees that, despite the dearth of background material on Harlan, the character and the timeless significance of this story were irresistible (as was working with an “old boys’ club” of fellow theater actors, including Langella, Peter Gerety as a feisty Justice William Brennan Jr. and Danny Glover as soap-opera-loving Justice Thurgood Marshall).
“I’ve played a lot of real-life creatures and have great fun researching them, because there is usually so much available,” Plummer muses. “Not in this case. But Shawn did that beautifully. She made the original persona that he puts forth — as a gent, as an Oxford Rhodes scholar, as someone who has a sort of blue American blood in his veins — quite naturally. You see him being warm and vulnerable and caring and how that influenced his choices.”
To convey an evolving American mindset that distrusted the war and embraced tolerance, Slovo created the composite character of Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker), Harlan’s Missouri-born, idealistic new clerk who proves a powerful influence on the jurist.
“Because my character is not from the educational elite — he’s from the lower class and he’s been brought into this society — he’s the audience’s window into this context,” says Walker, who previously worked with Plummer in the 2007 Broadway production of Inherit the Wind. “He represents what’s really going on in the country at large while this very pivotal case is taking place.”
Connolly is also key in leading viewers to consider our own perspectives on issues of race and discrimination that are still prevalent in the workings of the court today. “His wife is with child, so these decisions aren’t just going to affect his life, but also the life of his progeny,” Walker says. “The justices are of an age where they make decisions, but they won’t necessarily get to see these decisions played out over time. The clerks and their families will suffer their consequences or reap their rewards.”
And finally there is Ali, whose own legacy is nearly void of his role as a civil rights leader. “I thought at the beginning, ‘Muhammad Ali is going to take this picture and wrap it up,’” admits Plummer. “But it was done so beautifully and sensitively, and he was placed so well that he looked like part of the cast. I was afraid that he would overwhelm because of his extraordinary personality. Because he could have, if Stephen had been a lesser director.”
Instead, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight is ultimately about a handful of men who were willing to risk everything to do the right thing.
“That’s what gives it an extra poignancy for me,” says Slovo. “Harlan has a wife who is in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, he’d just been given a terminal diagnosis and has a limited time on the planet. Most people would just say, ‘That’s it.’ The fact that he was able to take a stand was hugely courageous — the same way that Ali was courageous. It’s about men with courage for me.”
“The next [major] case [the court] dealt with was Roe v. Wade,” adds Frears. “And this is all still playing out today. The Supreme Court is central to everything — and the appointments are central to everything.”
“Their decisions affect everyone,” Slovo agrees. “They affect all Americans.”
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight premieres Saturday, Oct. 5 at 8/7CT on HBO.
Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO