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Muhammad Ali Was Born Today... A Look At What Bio Projects Are In The Works

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 17, 2013 at 10:34AM

Today in history, January 17, 1942... Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight boxing champ, dubbed "The Greatest," is born in Louisville, KY.
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Muhammad Ali

Today in history, January 17, 1942... Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight boxing champ, dubbed "The Greatest," is born in Louisville, KY.

Over the years, there have been a several films (mostly documentaries) that have centered on the life and/or career of Ali, or that featured him as part of some larger narrative; the most popular likely being When We Were Kings, the 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary about the "Rumble in the Jungle", Ali's legendary 1974 fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

On screen, he's been played by a handful of actors, the most prominent likely being Will Smith in the 2001 film, Ali. Others you may not be aware of include Terrence Howard, in the 2000 ABC TV movie, King of the World; David Ramsey, in the 2000 Fox TV movie, Ali: An American Hero; and Darius McCrary, in the 1997 HBO TV movie, Don King: Only in America.

There are a few others... You'll probably find most of these on home video currently. Maybe even streaming on Netflix.

Aside from Will Smith's turn in Michael Mann's 2001 film, there still really hasn't been what I'd call the definitive Muhammad Ali biopic; not that I'm holding my breath for one, or that I even want one. Just making an observation. After all, he is an icon, not just locally, but all over the world. 

Although, I've never really been a fan of birth to death biopics anyway; films that attempt to squeeze a human being's entire life story into into 2 or so hours. If it was so necessary to tell a person's life story on screen, I think a TV mini-series would be better suited. Or, you take the approach others have, like, most recently, Steven Speilberg's Lincoln, which focused on a specific period in the man's life, as opposed to trying to tell his entire life story in one sitting.

All that said, there are a few noteworthy Ali projects in development right now; the most prominent being Stephen Frears' upcoming Muhammad Ali film for HBOTitled Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight. The film will take place in 1967, as then Heavy Weight Champion of the World Muhammad Ali refused to enlist and go fight for the USA in Vietnam; his objections to the war were very public, he was convicted and sentenced to serve time in prison, during which he appealed his case that would go all the way to the Supreme Court. This was all around the time the public began turning against the war, and thus support for Ali grew; eventually, some years later, the Supreme Court would reverse his conviction.

The film stars Christopher Plummer and Frank LangellaDanny Glover, Ed Begley Jr.Barry Levinson, Bob Balaban, and Kathleen Chalfant

Danny Glover will play Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Begley, Levinson, Balaban and Chalfant will play Justice Harry BlackmunJustice Potter Stewart, an advocate for Vietnam veterans, and Justice Marshall Harlan's wife respectively.

Christopher Plummer is playing Harlan, while Frank Langella will be Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Director Frears has said that he isn''t casting an actor to play Muhammad Ali, and is instead using achival footage of Ali in the film.

This has been in the works for about a year, but I've heard little about it since our last update which was in the spring of last year. I'd assume it'll be making its debut on HBO sometime this year.

The second noteworthy Ali project i  from Kartemquin Films (the company behind a few documentaries we've covered here on S&A, like The Interrupters and the Bill T. Jones profile A Good Man), that we first alerted you to in October.

It's titled The Trials of Muhammad Ali, and is aimed for a 2013 release.

According to the company, the documentary is actually not a boxing film, as you might expect; instead it'll cover...

... Ali’s toughest bout, his battle to overturn the five-year prison sentence he received for refusing US military service during the Vietnam War.

So, a companion of sorts to Stephen Frears film.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali is being directed by Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) and executive produced by Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) for Kartemquin Films.

So a stellar group behind this project, which they state will show Ali "as a fighter fueled by defiance, faith and a quest for justice," and which we are looking forward to seeing become a reality this year.

Chicago folks got a chance to see a preview of the film at the Chicago Humanities Festival, in November. If anyone attended, feel free to share your reactions to what you saw.

And lastly, worth noting, it was announced in June that producer David Sonenberg was developing a musical version of When We Were Kings.

Sonenberg was the producer of the documentary, by the way.

"The story fuses music, sports, dance, politics, race and culture in a way that should appeal to a broad, pan-generational audience," he said, adding that the cast of this stage musical adaptation will include all the notable players who also appeared in the doc, like Don KingJames Brown, Norman MailerMobutu Sese Seko and George Plimpton, and of course Ali and Foreman.

The musical's score will incorporate songs from the era, which were also featured in the movie, like tracks from James Brown, B.B. King, the Pointer Sisters and Bill Withers, as well as some even older music.

Sonenberg said that he plans to incorporate music into the story "in ways that are more naturalistic than in traditional musical-theater fare, while still ensuring that the songs are integrated into the emotion of the story."

He's shooting for an Off Broadway run (at least, at first) with the show opening sometime in 2014, or even sooner.

So, picture Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, while belting out a tune.

That's all I have! Although I'm betting other Ali projects will continue to surface throughout the year, and thereafter... especially with 2014 being the 40th anniversary of "The Rumble In The Jungle."

Happy 71st birthday Muhammad Ali!


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