Muhammad Ali’s death at 74 on Friday night sent the world into mourning. The boxer, activist and relentless pursuer of equality was a hero to millions and the first global sports star before globalisation was even a thing. The brash and beautiful man from Louisville shook up the world for the better. Through his commitment to his religion in the face of hatred, through his refusal to fight for a government that denied him the most basic of human rights, through his determination to see a better and more equal world, Ali was not just The Greatest in the ring but out of it too.
Being one of the most important figures in the 20th Century, there are no shortage of films made about The Louisville Lip. Some are great, some less so but they all manage to capture the brilliance of this one of a kind human being. He had a life no Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up and through these films, those who know little about the great champion can find out just why he meant so much to millions of people in every corner of the globe. Here are six movies about Ali that you need to see.
When We Were Kings (1996)
Following the lengthy build up to Ali’s legendary battle with George Foreman – the Rumble in the Jungle – When We Were Kings is not just an intimate insight into the personalities of the competitors but also the reign of Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who coughed up $10 million of public money to stage the fight.
Apart from the build up to the fight that also saw a concert featuring James Brown and BB King perform, When We Were Kings features much of the classic bout itself. We see Foreman try and use all his God-given strength and power to knock out Ali just like he had done to virtually every opponent he ever faced. And we see Ali, using his mind to outwit and outmanoeuvre the larger man and counter with brutally fast right hands, the final one of which knocked out the champion and saw Ali regain the heavyweight championship of the world, the very title that was taken from his for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
Michael Mann’s biopic is a stylish and seductive film that covers all of the important aspects of the great one’s life without getting too beneath the surface of the complex and fascinating man. Will Smith does a very good impression of the champion as we see Ali defeat Sonny Liston against all the odds, become friends with Malcolm X, convert to Islam, refuse to be drafted into the army, return to fight and lose against Joe Frazier and eventually triumph over George Foreman in Zaire.
Still the only large scale biopic made about Ali, it is well worth watching as an introduction to the champion.
AKA Cassius Clay (1970)
Directed by Jimmy Jacobs, a famed fight tape collector who later became the manager of Mike Tyson, Jacobs also made over 1000 documentaries about boxing, including this classic about Muhammad Ali. Made during Ali’s time away from boxing in the 60s (due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam), the film is a mixture of wonderful archive footage that includes Malcolm X talking about his onetime friend before he was assassinated and Ali discussing his career with well-regarded trainer Cus D’Amato.
Amongst the many things they discuss is if Ali could beat Joe Louis, the only heavyweight many believe to be a contender for Ali’s crown of the greatest heavyweight of all time. It is rare to see Ali captured on film in such an introspective mood.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
Specifically covering Ali’s conversion to Islam and his refusal to fight in Vietnam, this recent documentary explores fresh and exciting ground as it explores complex themes like race, religion and conscientious objectors through the cypher that is Muhammad Ali.
Featuring new interviews with the current leader of the Nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan, John Carlos, the Olympic Games bronze medallist who rose the Black Power salute on the podium and also Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, this HBO documentary is a different class to many of the others that have come out in recent years.
The Greatest (1977)
This one is an odd one. It’s a biopic of Ali’s life, made in the late 70s, spanning his Olympic victory in 1960 through to the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. What makes it unique though it that Ali plays himself. Ali may have not been the world’s finest actor, but his charisma makes him infinitely watchable, even if the film around him is little more than a cheesy biography. Obviously the Will Smith version is better, but there’s plenty to make this oddity worth looking out — Ali at his prime is always worth your time, and his has a great cast backing him up, including Ernest Borgnine as Angelo Dundee and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X.
Muhammad and Larry (2009)
In Muhammad and Larry, we see the greatest heavyweight champion of all time try and convince himself and the world that he still has it, even though it’s clear he is physically shot and that there are early signs of Parkinson’s. The documentary, part of ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 strand, exhibits the build up to the fight that saw Ali take on his one-time sparring partner and future all-time great Larry Holmes, best known for having the most fearsome jab in division history.
The documentary is most notable for its depiction of Ali in such a frail state — he no longer moves or speaks like he did just a few years earlier and he has visibly aged dramatically. We also get to relive the traumatising fight that saw Ali get pummelled and pounded for ten rounds before being rescued from himself by his corner. Perhaps most importantly, Muhammad and Larry acts as a startling insight into an athlete that is long past his prime and unable to recognise it.