Friday, May 9, 2014

"Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" with Frank Langella (2013)

In 1964 Muhammad Ali declared his status as a conscientious objector based on his beliefs as a Black Muslim. The War in Vietnam was heating up at the same time that the Civil Rights struggle was coming to a head. This film covers the years between Ali’s initial declaration that he would not fight and the culmination of the Supreme Court Case arising from the Draft Evasion charges, for which he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to 5 years in prison.

During the time of his appeals he worked doggedly to keep himself alive in the eyes of the public, knowing that someday he would be coming back to the world of boxing. He had that kind of faith. From appearances on TV shows, Civil Rights events and even a Broadway Show, he remained visible, and proudly determined to win this, the toughest fight of his life; the United States of America versus Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.

The brilliance of this film is that no one plays the part of Muhammad Ali. Instead, during the course of the movie, as the Supreme Court Justices debate what to do about the case, the audience sees and hears actual film footage of Mr. Ali on those TV shows, Civil Rights protests and even a clip from the Broadway show. This manages to actually convey the reality of how divorced he was from the actual proceedings. He simply went on with his life while he waited the outcome, of which he never had any doubt. Those are his words, not mine.

Playing the part of the Supreme Court Justices are a cast of luminary actors; not the least of which are Frank Langella as  Warren Burger; Ed Begley Jr. as Harry Blackmun; and Peter Gerety as William Brennan. Christopher Plummer plays Justice John Harlan, who is pitted against Burger in the struggle to keep the court free of political influence.

Barry Levinson plays Potter Stewart; John Bedford Lloyd portrays Byron 'Whizzer' White; Fritz Weaver takes a turn as Hugo Black; while Harris Yulin  and Danny Glover play Justices William Douglas and Thurgood Marshall, respectively. All are excellent in their roles. (Glover is especially humorous in his treatment of the wily Marshall, who recused himself from the case because he had been involved in a lower court ruling on the same case.)

The Chief Justice is beholden to the President, who wants the conviction to stand. The justices are almost divided, but Ali loses the case by a 5-3 vote. But then the astonishing happens; a law clerk assigned to Harlan is actually able to change the minds of not only the Chief, but several others along the way. When the Court debates the case again, Ali’s conviction is overturned.

Remarkable for its acting and the events themselves, this is a film you do not want to miss. It has everything you could hope for in the treatment of this case. It is historically accurate and captures all the tension of the era, while giving full view to what life is like behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court. 

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