×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Smith laces up for ‘Ali’

Scribes claim biopic more than a sports pic

Conventional wisdom says that you don’t make $100 million movies about American sports heroes, let alone controversial boxing figures.

“They may play in Peoria, but they don’t play overseas,” foreign distributors always moan in unison, “So please, don’t send us anymore, OK?”

And so Hollywood was understandably astounded when Columbia Pictures agreed to make Michael Mann’s “Ali,” at a whopping $105 million — a surprising amount for a biopic, even one that stars Will Smith.

But when you sit and talk with the men who wrote the story, Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele (co-writers of “Nixon”), they immediately disabuse you of the notion that the movie is specifically American, or even ultimately about sports.

“It’s such an enormous life,” explains Rivele. “It’s not a sports movie. It’s international, and it’s about a soul — Ali spent his life trying to find a purpose, struggling with understanding what God’s will was for him.”

Adds Wilkinson: “In the ’70s you could have gone into any mud hut in Botswana and asked anyone, ‘Who’s Jimmy Carter?’ and they’d look at you with blank faces. But mention Ali, and people would point to pictures of him on their walls.”

Muhammad Ali was never just a boxer. As much an icon as an iconoclast, Ali forced the white-majority U.S. to deal with uncomfortable issues, often simply because under the brilliant light of his loudmouthed celebrity those issues simply could not be ignored.

The hard part, then, is going about “selecting out all the incredible stuff to find what would best give you insight into his character,” Rivele says.

Depending on which angle you looked at him from, Ali could easily be a black Muslim separatist, an unpopular pacifist, a civil right activist or the greatest athlete of the 20th century. It’s a life affording any writer a staggering amount of material, and many contradictions.

To find the whole Ali for their screenplay, Rivele and Wilkinson say they started by researching Joe Frazier, the man who helped Ali define himself in the ring as a boxer, and Howard Cosell, the fiesty, nasal-voiced Jewish sportscaster who helped define the pugilist’s public persona.

“(Ali and Cossell) were the perfect verbal foils for each other,” says Wilkinson, adding, “And, they made each other.”

But despite all of Ali’s trademark boasting and often ferociously militant language, ironically enough, the single event that would come to define his life both screenwriters say, was silence.

“They offered him every conceivable deal to get before the draft board,” says Wilkinson. “Every form of deal for military service. He wouldn’t have to carry a gun. He could work as a medic. But he would not answer to the name Cassius Marcellus Clay.”

“His silence was like the silence of Sir Thomas Moore,” says Rivele. “You know? Where Cromwell says, ‘His silence is heard throughout the land.’ Ali’s silence (before the draft board) came to define attitudes all over the country about the war and about racism.”

“Yeah,” agrees Wilkinson, “It’s Shakespearean; it’s like the silence of Cordelia.”

Here Rivele stops: “And if all that doesn’t work, I’ve got two words for you: Will Smith.”

More Biz

  • Jussie Smollett suspect

    Jussie Smollett Named a Suspect by Chicago Police for Filing False Report

    Chicago police have named “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett as a suspect in a criminal investigation, three weeks after he reported he was the victim of a hate crime. Detectives are presenting evidence to a grand jury, which is expected to determine whether to indict Smollett on a charge of filing a false police report. “Jussie [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • Island Records Names Christine Kauffman Senior

    Island Records Names Christine Kauffman Senior VP of Brand Partnerships

    Veteran advertising executive Christine Kauffman has been named senior VP of brand partnerships at Island Records, the company announced today. She will be based in New York and report to Island COO Eric Wong. In making the announcement, Island President Darcus Beese said, “The fast-paced and competitive field of strategic brand marketing has become an [...]

  • Latin Music Veteran Nir Serioussi Joins

    Latin Music Veteran Nir Serioussi Joins Interscope as Executive VP

    Interscope Geffen A&M announced today that veteran executive, producer and songwriter Nir Seroussi will join the company as executive vice president. The announcement was made by Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman and CEO John Janick, to whom Serioussi will report. (Seroussi, center, is pictured above with Janick, left, and Interscope EVP Joie Manda.) According to the [...]

  • Tan FranceUnforgettable Gala, Inside, Los Angeles,

    'Queer Eye' Star Tan France to Host Audiobook Audie Awards

    “Queer Eye” resident style expert Tan France is taking on a slightly different project next month as he hosts the Audie Awards, which honors the best releases and achievements in audiobooks over the past 12 months. The ceremony, which takes place on March 4 in New York, is an annual event organized by the Audio [...]

  • Obit Obituary Placeholder

    Shelly Saltman, Former Fox Sports President and Promoter, Dies at 87

    Sheldon “Shelly” Saltman, the sports promoter behind the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs tennis match and Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 87. The original president of Fox Sports, Saltman started his career as a sports announcer before moving to promotions at media companies like the Gillette Cavalcade [...]

  • Arista Records, Mogul Vision Launch Joint

    Arista Records, Mogul Vision Launch Joint Venture

    Arista Records and Smokepurpp/ Lil Mosey manager Josh Marshall today announced the launch of Mogul Vision Music, a new joint venture label focused on “breaking extraordinary talent and building artist careers through innovative A&R, branding and marketing strategy,” according to the announcement. Based in New York with Marshall (pictured above left, with Massey) as its CEO, the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content