HBO Films’ presentation of Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight airs tonight, broaching the former heavyweight champion’s choice to be a Muslim follower of the Nation of Islam, the subsequent changing of his name from Cassius Clay, the stripping of his heavyweight title as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and his conviction of draft evasion, which carried a five-year prison sentence in June of 1967.
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight takes place during a time when the lone black supreme court justice among nine, Thurgood Marshall — played by Danny Glover — is mistaken for an elevator operator in his own office building.
Justice William J. Brennan Jr. is portrayed by Peter Gerety, Chief Justice Warren Burger is played by Frank Langella, and Christopher Plummer is Supreme Court Justice John Harlan II, the grandson of the lone judge to vote against segregation in 1896 after calling the white race the dominant race.
“If this court sends Ali to jail,” says Harlan, at one point, “It is, in effect, saying that there is one law for Whites, and one law for Blacks.”
How Harlan arrives at his assertion is part of what makes for a riveting, combustible story which chronicles the contentious decision-making process among the nine Supreme Court judges.
“I hate the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad and his bunch of thugs and gangsters organized from the jail. They preach racial segregation. I am an integrationist,” says Marshall, who was born in 1908 — the year Jack Johnson defeated Tommy Burns to become the heavyweight champion.
“Oh yeah. A negro was the heavyweight champion of the world. What happened that very next day? They went out looking for the ‘Great White Hope’ to take back the title. There were race riots in Springfield, Ill., the home of Abraham Lincoln, and 89 Negroes were lynched that year.”
The film is written by Shawn Slovo and directed by Stephen Frears.
Lem Satterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org