HBO’s movie Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight has a lily-white cast because it’s a Supreme Court drama set in 1971, the show’s creators explained today at TCA Summer TV Press Tour. This was in response to a TV critic who asked them why the movie had so many white characters and didn’t “go into what black people were thinking” when the heavyweight champ refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds. The movie spans just a few weeks — about six months before Roe v Wade. Ali does appear in the movie, but it’s Actual Ali, 100 percent archival footage.
“We were making a Supreme Court drama,” explained screenwriter Shawn Slovo, noting that all but one of the justices and all of the clerks were white men. “There were no black clerks and woman clerks,” Slovo explained patiently, adding, “That’s the drama we were telling. We chose to make a Supreme Court drama about the Ali case.” For refusing to be conscripted into the military, Ali was arrested, found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. In 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This movie is about the justices coming to that decision. One critic asked Slovo to compare that Supreme Court with today’s. “There seemed to be more of an independence then than what I know about how the Supreme Court operates today. It was an extremely courageous decision; obviously there was pressure from the chief of the Supreme Court to keep the status quo there. It’s that independence of judgment that has resonance in comparison to today’s Supreme Court which seems more politically tied.”