The Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali, accomplished so many things in his lifetime that it would take a lifetime just to comprehend it all. Just read Tambay’s piece (HERE) about his Broadway stage debut in “Big Time Buck White.”
But decades ago, Ali also ventured into dramatic screen acting as well.
First was his 1977 Columbia Pictures film “The Greatest,” in which, long before Will Smith did in his 2001 film “Ali,” Ali played himself in a highly fictionalized bio-pic of his life. While the film does play very fast and loose with the real facts, Ali is clearly having a blast playing himself; after all how could he messed that up?
But two years later, he took on a more serious and dramatic role in the NBC two-part, four-hour mini-series “Freedom Road.” The program, which was considered a major TV event at the time, was broadcast in October 1979 and was clearly designed to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the original “Roots” mini-series on ABC two years earlier.
Based on a book written in the mid-1940’s by the very successful and prolific novelist Howard Fast, who wrote many historical fiction books based on real people, “Freedom Road” dealt with a former slave and Union solider named Gideon Jackson, who returns home to South Carolina following the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era in the South. Jackson is elected to the state legislature and eventually to the US Senate, all while coming face to face with opposition from white landowners, law enforcement, and the KKK.
The series, which also starred Ron O’Neal, Barbara O (Barbara O. Jones) as Jackson’s wife (she went on to star in Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”) and Kris Kristofferson as a sharecropper who helps Jackson unite former slaves and white tenant farmers, was unfortunately considered something of a major disappointment.
Directed by Czech filmmaker Jan Kadar, who moved to the U.S. in the late 60’s to make films here in this country (his “The Shop on Main Street,” won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1966, and “Lies My Father Told Me” was a major art house success), “Freedom Road” tuned out to be a rather plodding film strangely lacking in dramatic tension.
Unfortunately Kadar died just a few months before “Freedom Road” was broadcast on NBC.
And things weren’t helped either by Ali’s oddly lackluster performance, which is all the more surprising when one considers that Ali had been “performing” his entire professional life. Perhaps it was because he might have been miscast in the role, which would explain why he seems so uncomfortable in many scenes.
If you’d like to see the series film, you’re sort of out of luck. Originally the entire 186 minute program was released on a two VHS tapes. However, when it was later released on DVD about ten years ago (it’s available on Amazon), it was severely edited down to just 96 minutes. So your options are to either try and find an original version on VHS (provided you have one of the last few existing VHS players on the planet), or watch the butchered version on DVD.
However, because of the Ali’s recent passing and a resurgent interest in the man and his life, perhaps some enterprising specialty video label a such as Olive Films (who have released older mini-series on blu-ray), will take up the challenge and release “Freedom Road,” remastered and in its original length.
Here’s a clip: