Muhammad Ali is properly revered as a sportsman, social activist, spiritual figure, and all-around icon of inspiration. His master skills as a showman will forever stand second-to-none as well, making the silver screen the most natural vehicle to highlight Ali’s larger-than-life grandeur outside of a boxing ring.
Throughout the 1970s, Muhammad regularly appeared as himself on television, be it on serious interview programs, variety shows, and even an episode of Diff’rent Strokes. Still, the tube couldn’t quite convey the hugeness that was Ali.
At the movies, Muhammad featured most frequently in documentaries about either his own career or the larger realm of boxing, but he proved he could act in narrative features, too, even though both times he portrayed the role he was literally born to play: Muhammad Ali.
The following roster is a Muhammad Ali Film Festival just waiting to happen. All the movies here are available to stream or watch on video, so program yours accordingly. It will be The Greatest.
I Am Ali (2014)
Supremely moving and superhumanly inspiring, the documentary I Am Ali tells the champ’s life story using his actual 1970s audio journals. Family, friends, and fighters participate in an account of an extraordinary life, emphasizing the Ali we didn’t all get to see so often: the husband, the father, the brother, the best friend, and the believer.
When We Were Kings (1996)
When We Were Kings chronicles Ali’s almost mythical 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in Zaire, Africa. In every regard, this film is a knockout. As such, Kings rightly took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Champions Forever (1989)
Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. George Foreman. Ken Norton. Larry Holmes. Five champions. Five legends. In this one extraordinary documentary they come together to tell their stories, bust one another’s chops a bit, and ultimately break bread. It’s a must-see.
Body and Soul (1981)
Radio DJ turned actor Leon Isaac Kennedy scored a huge hit as an incarcerated fighter in the prison-set boxing saga Penitentiary (1979). For his follow-up, Kennedy again returned to the ring, remaking a 1947 Hollywood pugilist classic, Body and Soul. Muhammad Ali, as himself, plays Kennedy’s mentor and trainer, so you can probably guess who wins the big match at the end.
The Greatest (1977)
When it came to casting The Greatest, the big-screen story of Muhammad Ali’s life, Hollywood knew it could do no better than to go with The Greatest himself. Ali holds the screen in the manner that he held the ring. James Earl Jones appears as Malcolm X; Ernest Borgnine co-stars as Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee.
Black Rodeo (1972)
Just when you think you’ve seen Muhammad Ali do it all, he turns up in Black Rodeo—a documentary about an African-American rodeo held in Harlem—riding a horse up 125th Street and joking with the other cowboys. Later on, Ali rides a bucking Brahma bull. Wow!
A.K.A. Cassius Clay (1970)
The first feature documentary on Muhammad Ali is a you-are-there experience of the champ’s boxing exile following his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. It’s raw and smooth at the same time, much like Ali’s own boxing style.
Something’s Happening (1967)
One-hour, seven minutes into this psychedelic documentary on the soaring San Francisco hippie movement, Ali appears at a peace rally. The antiestablishment crowd revels in his presence, knowing that a transformative leader is in their midst.