I admit I only went to see the HBO movie Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight here at Cannes as a chance to speak afterwards to director Stephen Frears, who is always a punchy pleasure to interview, what with his curmudgeon biting humor and bright pinpointing eyes.
The film, to be aired on TV next fall, is a watered-down 12 Angry Men delving into the 1971 Supreme Court decision about Cassius Clay's (aka Muhammad Ali) right to appeal his conviction for his evasion of the Vietnam War draft, as a conscientious objector inspired by Muslim beliefs. This conviction cost Ali three years of work as he was not allowed to fight because of it, nor could he leave the country. He was also to be imprisoned.
Frears states that he made the film because he met the South African scriptwriter Shawn Slovo at a party, and she showed him the script and he liked it. "I liked the script. You guys want me to be an auteur. I am not an auteur in this film."
I would say that more than the script---which takes a rather conventional and predictable approach to the story ( "will the Justices see the light" is the driving question from scene to scene)---is probably not what so drew Frears, but rather the topic: the weak decision-making of old conservative men in power.
"Do you not like the old men running the world?" I asked pointblank.
"I do not like the young men running my own country," Frears retorted, referring perhaps to Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Chris Grayling. "But you are probably a sucker for youth."
"Probably," I said.
The topic of Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is relevant today, Frears continued, given the conservative constitution of the US Supreme Court. "I would not be surprised if Roe vs Wade is overturned in a year," he said.
It is for that very reason--its relevance---that even though the film has a made-for-TV quality, I was happy to have watched it. Being privy, even in fiction form, to what goes on in the chambers of the Supreme Court is educational, if not surprising. We learn that prejudice (the old men have cantankerous idiosyncratic opinions) and health (one elderly justice sleeps during deliberations) play a large part in how the decisions get made. Luckily, there are young vibrant clerks who do the work of actually researching the legal issues, to assist the old men. One of them, a certain "Kevin Connolly" (played ably by actor Benjamin Walker), is pivotal in the outcome of the verdict.
The archival footage of Muhammad Ali expressing his passionate views is also a highlight in the film.
Was Frears surprised that this HBO film screened at Cannes?
"No, because I am very vain."
His next project: a film with Judy Dench, who plays a woman maltreated by God."
"Do you believe in God?" I asked, as the publicist gestured us to the door.
"No," Frears quipped. "But she does."
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