Muhammad Ali in Film

June 7, 2016

With the recent passing of boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, the New York Film Academy has been scouring film and TV history to highlight some of the films and documentaries that have painted and honored the incredible career and life he led both inside and outside of the ring.


Will Smith delivers a compelling performance in this 2001 biopic, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Directed by Michal Mann, Ali provides a character study of the icon, starting from his beginnings as Cassius Clay and up until his boxing championships and spiritual transformation between the years 1964 and 1974 when he reclaimed his title in his “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Ali’s opening sequence is something to check out as it immediately captures us with its emphasis on the boxer and its superb choice in music—Mann going with a live (cover) rendition of Sam Cooke playing over flashes of Ali’s training regimen.

The Greatest

As the title suggests, Ali was never shy about his status in the boxing world, or in general for that matter. In this 1977 film about the boxer’s life, Ali plays himself. Though a slightly dramatized version of his life story, the film allowed Ali to shine with his outspoken personality. The film includes his Olympic triumphs as Cassius Clay, his conversion to Islam, his refusal of the Army draft and the legal battle after being stripped of his World Title.

When We Were Kings

The 1997 Academy Award-winning documentary examined the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire between champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, who was the underdog challenger at the time. Considered one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century, Ali regained the title against the undefeated champ by knocking out Foreman just before the end of the eighth round. Side note: the match was one of famous promoter Don King’s first events.

Freedom Road

Few may know that the great Muhammad Ali took a crack at a purely dramatic acting role in the 1979 TV movie Freedom Road. In the film Ali plays Gideon Jackson, a former slave from Virginia who gets elected to the Unites States Senate in the 1870’s. While in office, Jackson battles other former slaves and white sharecroppers to keep the land they tended all their lives. 

Facing Ali

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to face Muhammad Ali in a match, this 2014 documentary captures the experience by interviewing ten of his opponents, including George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks, and others. Each former opponent pays respect to the legend, having nothing but compliments for arguably the greatest of all time.