Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who has died at the age of 74, was so much more than a great sporting icon. His larger than life persona, outspoken self-confidence and uncompromising personal beliefs made him one of the most renowned, influential Americans of the 20th century.
So powerful and charismatic a figure inevitably made a huge impact on the movies. Just about any boxing movie you could name from the last fifty years has at least an echo of Ali about it.
Nor did his influence stop there; the also-legendary Bruce Lee was hugely inspired by Ali, incorporating elements of the boxer’s cocky style into his martial arts; evidence of this can be found in ‘Enter the Dragon’ (in which supporting actor Jim Kelly also plays a character largely based on Ali).
It’s no surprise, then, that filmmakers have brought Ali’s story to the big screen on numerous occasions, both in feature films and documentaries - and these are the key films to tackle the legend.
It’s only natural that the man who famously declared himself to be ‘the greatest’ would then play himself in his first biopic. This 1977 movie from director Tom Gries captures the essentials of the Ali story.
It’s unlikely to show up on any best movies of all time lists, but it’s certainly compelling to watch Ali literally being himself, with support from such Hollywood heavyweights as James Earl Jones, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Duvall.
This was one of only three acting roles for Ali, who would also star in TV slavery drama ‘Freedom Road,’ and guest star in an episode of sitcom ‘Diff’rent Strokes.’
AKA Cassius Clay
A biopic is as well and good, but you can’t beat the real thing. This 1970 documentary details the boxer’s rise to glory, as well as his public struggles in joining the Black Power movement and refusing to fight in the Vietnam war, at the expense of his career.
AKA Cassius Clay (the boxer’s birth name, used before his conversion to Islam) is packed with archive footage of the man himself, plus such other boxing icons as Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and Sugar Ray Robinson.
When We Were Kings
This 1996 Oscar-winner has long been hailed as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It centres on one of the most celebrated and pivotal fights of Ali’s career, the Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight title fight against George Foreman, held in the former Zaire in 1974.
As well as covering the fight itself in huge detail (most famously detailing Ali’s notorious ‘rope-a-dope’ technique), When We Were Kings explores large scale media circus surrouding the event, including a pre-fight music festival featuring BB King and James Brown.
The broader cultural ramifications of the event are also explored, both positive and negative; questions are asked about the ethics of staging the event in Zaire, where it was backed by the tyrannical dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
The 2001 biopic from director Michael Mann took Will Smith to new levels as an actor, with the former Fresh Prince piling on weight and training for a year to embody the boxing icon at the height of his powers.
Whilst the film overall garnered a fairly lukewarm response from critics, Smith was widely praised for evoking the spirit of Ali.
As well as garnering Oscar nods for Smith and supporting actor Jon Voight, the film also gave a breakthrough role to future superstar Jamie Foxx.
Picture Credit: MGM-UA, Gramercy/Polygram, Sony