Ali's Supreme Court Fight Hits the Screen in New HBO Movie
The film spotlights acclaimed boxer's challenge against the military draft.
Krattenmaker says no fists were flung during his year at the court, but most of the rest of the themes in the roughly 90-minute movie are accurate. Time Warner general counsel Paul Cappuccio, who clerked for justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in the late 1980s, has seen the movie and said he thinks it rings true in many respects.
The source for the Supreme Court narrative in Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is a chapter in a 2000 book of the same name by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace. Bingham is a photographer and long-time friend of Ali. That book in turn credits the 1979 book The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong for many of the details.
Screenwriter Shawn Slovo said she also consulted Robert Schnakenberg's Secret Lives of the Supreme Court for personal details about the justices. "You can't just make stuff up," she said in an interview. "But you can't bore people, either."
Perhaps the film's biggest virtue is that it highlights Harlan, a somewhat forgotten justice who died not long after the court ruled in the Ali case. Viewed as a conservative, he is cited as a model justice by court members and scholars of all stripes, but is not widely known publicly.
JUSTICE REVERSES ITSELF ON ALI
Ali, a recent convert to Islam, sought conscientious-objector status when he was given 1A classification by the Selective Service in 1966 — a time when the Vietnam War, and opposition to it, were building. Ali's application was rejected. On appeal, a U.S. Justice Department hearing officer recommended that Ali be given objector status. But a letter from the Justice Department countered the recommendation and the designation was denied, without explanation. Ali refused to step forward when he was called for the draft; he was convicted on draft-evasion charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
Intense controversy surrounded Ali's actions, and he was stripped of boxing privileges as his appeal continued in the courts. This part of the story is told in the movie with archival footage of Ali himself. No actor plays Ali. "Why portray Ali with an actor when he can tell the story himself?" screenwriter Slovo said. "It would have been very distracting."
The movie recounts how Brennan persuaded his colleagues to grant review of Ali's appeal, even though the court had turned down the case at an earlier stage. But even though four justices granted review, Ali's prospects of actually winning were bleak. Justices were persuaded that, because Muslims allegedly pledge to fight a holy war if commanded to by Allah, Ali did not meet the requirement for conscientious-objector status that he oppose all wars.
After a lackluster oral argument on behalf of Ali, the justices met in private and voted, 5-3, to let his conviction stand. (Marshall, who was solicitor general when Ali's case first arose, recused himself.) Burger assigned the opinion to Harlan.
In the movie, Harlan in turn asked his clerk to write a draft opinion against Ali. The clerk was a liberal, and he clashed with Harlan, ultimately writing a pro-Ali opinion and submitting his resignation.
That did not occur in reality, said Krattenmaker, who was not the clerk assigned to write the opinion. "I would have written it as Justice Harlan wanted it," said Krattenmaker, who retired as dean of College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law in 1997. "No clerk ever confuses himself with being a justice."
But Krattenmaker did urge Harlan to read Elijah Muhammad's Message to the Black Man, which had convinced him—and ultimately persuaded Harlan—that Muslims in general, and Ali in particular, were for all practical purposes opposed to all war. Also influential was a 1955 case, Sicurella v. United States, which found that a Jehovah's Witness effectively opposed all war, even if the religion envisions the possibility of participating in a theocratic war or Armageddon.