This week in ‘Go Fuck Yourself’; Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
I don’t know how well up you are on your history but there’s this one guy named Muhammad Ali and he’s the fucking coolest. In 1966, the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time refused to be drafted into the US Army and sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Not only was it against his religion, but Ali saw no reason to fight on behalf of old white people in a time when African Americans back home were still being denied basic rights. Ali spoke out against the war before there was mainstream protest against it, he inspired Martin Luther Goddamn King, who was worried about upsetting the president, to speak out publically against the war. For this, Ali was stripped of his boxing license, stripped of his title, hauled before the Supreme Court and threatened with prison. But in 1971, the Supreme Court upheld his right to claim status as a conscientious objector. It’s a fascinating story and is being presented in a HBO TV movie named Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. HBO’s last big movie, Behind the Candelabra received great reviews and this movie has a great cast and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears behind the camera. Sounds like a recipe for success. There’s just one problem; apart from archive footage, Ali isn’t in the movie. At all.
The film is entirely focused on the white dudes in the Supreme Court deciding what’s to be done with this uppity black man. The movie is about a shiny, happy clerk played by Benjamin Walker trying to persuade stodgy old Judge John Marshall Harlin, played by Christopher Plummer, to change his mind about voting against Ali, and try to persuade all the other stodgy old white men to do likewise. Frank Langella, a really great actor who has spent decades playing everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Richard Nixon to Skeletor, also features prominently as Chief Justice Warren Burger, prominent Simpsons punchline…mmm, burger…Danny Glover is the most prominent African American actor, playing Justice Thurgood Marshall, being too old for this shit actually making one an ideal candidate for becoming a judge, but he doesn’t stick around too long and the movie mostly resembles being stuck in a house of mirrors with Christopher Lee.
There’s a talented cast involved for sure and I’m not saying this brand of political back-and-forth can’t make for compelling drama but it seems to me like there’s a much more interesting story being sidestepped here. You’ve got a brash, confident young star, is his prime, willing to turn his back on everything he spent his life trying to achieve and willing to go up against the government to do it. Who cares about some clerk in comparison? Movies about enlightened white people sticking up for black people just leave a bad taste in my mouth, I can’t abide The Help or The Blind Side for that reason. It’s patronising, self-congratulatory and plain unnecessary. If you want to see a story with a white protagonist, you can, there’s no need to seize on the history of another race and reframe it from your own perspective.
What Muhammad Ali did was a big deal from a Civil Rights perspective, he wanted to do things on his own terms rather than be the tool of other people and take part in a war he had no stake in. He went around the country talking about it, inspiring African Americans, becoming a symbol to them, it was a big part of what makes him such an iconic figure to this day. A bigger issue could have been tackled here but HBO pulled their punches (Hell yes pun intended, I do what I want fools) I wouldn’t dream of speaking on behalf of any black people and maybe my outrage here is my own but Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, in over emphasising the role lengthy discourse between old white men played in this black man’s life, seems problematic to me from a racial perspective, from a historical perspective and from a narrative perspective.
Besides, everyone knows this is Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight: