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‘Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight’: Integrating Contemporary and Archival Footage for the HBO Movie

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay and the United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, the heavyweight champion of the world found his toughest match taking place outside the boxing ring. After joining the Nation of Islam and adopting the name Muhammad Ali, he was widely denounced for refusing to be drafted into U.S. military service based on his religious opposition to the Vietnam War. He was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing title. In 1971, his appeal reached the United States Supreme Court.

In 1964, Cassius Clay’s knockout victory over Sonny Liston earned him the title of heavyweight champion of world.

HBO captures the dramatic legal repercussions of Clay’s refusal to serve in Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which began airing in October and will receive VOD and Blu-ray distribution.

Directed by Stephen Frears and based on a book of the same name by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace, the film focuses on the high court’s legal proceedings over a few months in 1971, already a period of social and political upheaval in America.

An exceptional cast tapped to portray the nine justices includes Frank Langella (as Chief Justice Warren E. Burger), Fritz Weaver (Hugo Black), Harris Yulin (William O. Douglas), Christopher Plummer (John Harlan II), Peter Gerety (William Brennan Jr.), Barry Levinson (Potter Stewart), John Bedford Lloyd (Byron “Whizzer” White), Danny Glover (Thurgood Marshall) and Ed Begley Jr. (Harry Blackmun).

The script, by Shawn Slovo, called for archival footage to portray Ali. Frears and the other filmmakers agreed with the decision to not cast an actor for the scenes showing the inimitable boxer, who was as bold and outspoken outside the ring as he was inside. According to producer Scott Ferguson, “Stephen [Frears] thought it would be much better and more exciting to go with the real Muhammad Ali.” (Frears had taken a similar archival-mix approach in 2006’s critically acclaimed The Queen.)

(From left) Christopher Plummer (as John Harlan II), Fritz Weaver (Hugo Black), Peter Gerety (William Brennan Jr.), Harris Yulin (William O. Douglas), Frank Langella (Chief Justice Warren E. Burger) and Danny Glover (Thurgood Marshall). Photo by Jojo Whilden/HBO

“We shot on the ARRI Alexa. We looked at both 35 [film] and the Alexa, and we liked the ability to see images live on set on the HD monitors. Then we worked with a colorist in the lab. So we shot Alexa, but with more of a film paradigm where the color correcting was being done at night, like with dailies, as opposed to being done live on the set,” says Ferguson, whose previous producer credits include The Firm, Temple Grandin and Brokeback Mountain.

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight was shot in New York City, with additional locations in New York State, and the production team went to great lengths to evoke Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. After extensive behind-the-scenes tours of the Supreme Court, the production built a meticulously detailed central courtroom on a stage at JC Studios in Brooklyn, in addition to filming elsewhere in New York City for scenes of the justices’ chambers and clerks’ offices. Seasoned costume designer Molly Maginnis came on board to re-create the fashions of the early ’70s, working with robe manufacturer Bentley & Simon, which has outfitted many of the Supreme Court justices since 1918.

“For our exteriors, after searching sites in Richmond, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the crew chose to shoot several locations in Manhattan, with all that grand architecture available,” says Ferguson. “And although we did shoot some brief scenes on the steps of the actual U.S. Supreme Court building in D.C., we used Albany, New York, as a [stand-in] for Washington. We also found a little neighborhood in Schenectady, New York, that was a great substitute for Georgetown.

“It was a hodgepodge of sorts because it was almost a one-location movie—the Supreme Court itself—but we shot at several different locations all designed to replicate Washington,” Ferguson adds. (The choice of New York locales was also prompted by generous film rebates administered by the Empire State, he says.)

“On a day-to-day basis, especially working with Stephen and a great crew, this was one of the most enjoyable shooting experiences I’ve ever had,” adds Ferguson.

Prior to the film’s HBO premiere, Frears said of the film, “Ali is a man who, at the height of his powers and fame and boxing achievement, made the decision to stand by what his conscience and his religion told him was right. He took the consequences, forfeited his heavyweight championship title, lost millions in fees, but never backed down. He is still a hero to millions, not only in America, but all over the world.”