Netflix’s newly released documentary Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali – detailing the relationship between the civil rights activist and the famed boxer – is just one of my films about Muhammad Ali’s life. Scores of documentaries and biopics have paid tribute to the boxing champion over the years. While many pictures have solely depicted real-life footage of Ali, others have relied on actors to portray him.
Ali — born Cassius Clay — rose to fame in the 1960s as an elite boxer who became the heavyweight champion of the world in 1964. In addition to setting the world alight with his sporting achievements, Ali developed into a social justice icon. The height of Ali’s career took place during America’s civil rights movement, thus he engaged with prominent leaders such as Malcolm X. Ali was also known for his stance against the Vietnam War, which led to his refusal of military service in 1967. Ali died in 2016, but his legacy has been and will continue to be documented in films, as is the case with Blood Brothers.
In sports documentaries and biopics, actors are tasked with bringing to life some of the most famous historical figures. In Ali’s case, numerous Hollywood stars have taken on the role of the legendary sportsman known as “The Greatest” over the last half-century. These are all the actors who have played Ali in movies.
Ali played himself in 1977’s The Greatest, a film depicting Ali’s life from the 1960 Summer Olympics to the boxer’s 1974 reclamation of the heavyweight title. Directed by Tom Gries, the biopic derives from Ali’s autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story. Ali starred alongside Ernest Borgnine, John Marley, Lloyd Haynes. The film won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture in 1978. Ali’s widespread inspiration as a public figure made him a fitting choice to star in his own movie.
The 2000 ABC movie King of the World featured Terrence Howard as Ali and focused on the boxer’s early career and buildup to his infamous heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston. Howard is best known for playing Rhodey in Marvel’s Iron Man, as well as Lucious Lyon in the TV series Empire. King of The World also starred Steve Harris as Liston and Gary Dourdan as Malcolm X.
David Ramsey starred as Ali in the FOX movie titled Ali: An American Hero, also released in 2000. The film primarily depicts the boxer’s conversion to Islam, in addition to his 1974 title fight against George Foreman. Ramsey’s other notable roles include John Diggle in the CW show Arrow and Sidney Parker in 2000’s Pay it Forward.
Hollywood A-lister Will Smith put on a pair of boxing gloves in the 2001 biopic Ali, starring alongside Jamie Foxx, John Voight, and Jeffrey Wright. Centralizing on the peak of his boxing triumphs, as well as controversies, between 1964 and 1974, the movie directed by Michael Mann garnered approval from critics and recognition at various award shows, including nominations for two Oscars and three Golden Globes. Smith’s performance as Ali earned him one of his two all-time Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role and won him a BET Award for Best Actor.
The most recent film representation of Muhammad Ali came in the 2020 Amazon Prime original movie One Night in Miami, which starred Eli Goree as the legendary boxer. Adapted from the original stage play of the same title, the movie represents a fictional account of the meeting between civil rights icons Ali, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Directed by Regina King, the movie scored a trio of nominations at the 2021 Academy Awards. One Night in Miami was not Goree’s first performance of a real-world sportsman, as the Canadian-born actor also portrayed the American track athlete Dave Albritton in 2016’s Race — a film recounting the life of Jesse Owens. Goree is also known for playing Wells Jaha in the CW show The 100.