LOS ANGELES--In 1964, 22-year-old world heavyweight champ CassiusMarcellus Clay Jr. shocked the public by converting to Islam andchanging his name to Muhammad Ali. Three years later he claimedconscientious objector status as "a minister of the religion of Islam"and refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces. That decision cost Alihis title; a judge convicted and sentenced him to five yearsimprisonment and a $10,000 fine and subsequently revoked his passportand barred him from fighting in the United States.

Ali's conviction because of his religious stance and his life insideand outside the boxing arena is the subject of "Ali," a Columbia pictureproduced, co-written and directed by Michael Mann ("The Insider") andstarring Will Smith as The Champ. The film opened onChristmas Day.

"Ali" is the story of a religious man whose newfound faith is put tothe test and who overcomes adversity because of his piety. The movie'srelease amid America's war against terrorism seems untimely, yet itsmessage of religious tolerance and nonviolence couldn't be moreappropriate.

"Many people doubted that (his Islamic belief) was sincere. He madeclear to everyone that his religion was a perfectly sincere faith in hisworldview," said Stephen J. Rivele, who shared screenwriting credit onthe movie with his writing partner Christopher Wilkinson, as well asEric Roth and Mann.

Rivele says that Ali's conversion to Islam is probably the pivotalevent in the screenplay. "It represented the kind of public declarationthat athletes were not able to make in those days," he said.

"We wanted to try to portray Ali's entire life," Rivele said."There's a whole generation out there that really doesn't know the man'slife. You can't (portray Ali) without understanding the man's spiritualquest to find God."

"Ali" follows the boxer's life from 1964, when he defeated SonnyListon for the Heavyweight Championship and adopted the Muslim faith, tohis 1974 fight against George Foreman in Zaire (the famous "Rumble inthe Jungle"). The movie features flashbacks to his days as a youth inLouisville, Ky., and his alignment with Elijah Muhammad under the Nationof Islam. His refusal of Uncle Sam's call to duty made front page news."I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" he once told a reporter.

"If you look at what he sacrificed as a religious principle, it wasunprecedented at his time," said Rivele, 52, who co-wrote the movie"Nixon" with Wilkinson. "He became a symbol of courage in the name ofbelief."

Ali did indeed take a stand against fighting in Vietnam when it wasstill unpopular to do so. At that time, "sports figures were supposed tobe one-dimensional quasi-cartoon characters," said Thomas Hauser, authorof the 1991 biography "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times."

"I'm expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam,and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated,and this is really the same thing that's happening over in Vietnam," Alitold the author.

But Ali caused a public stir when he converted to Islam. He changedhis name to Muhammad, and the media refused to use it. Even sportscommentator Howard Cosell, who apologized to Ali for calling him CassiusClay at a press conference, faced condemnation for his public support ofthe boxer.

"It was an interesting alliance because you had a practicing Jewsupporting a Muslim," Rivele noted of the Cosell-Ali relationship. Inthe movie, Jon Voight plays Cosell.

As a Muslim, Ali opposed integration and intermarriage, and he spokeout against the glorification of white imagery in American culture. Hiswit could sometimes cut across racial lines. "Angel food cake is thewhite cake, but the devil's food cake is chocolate," Ali was quoted inhis biography. The white, blue-eyed Jesus of popular Christian paintingswas especially offensive to African-Americans, he said. "Where are thecolored angels?" he asked. "They must be in the kitchen preparing milkand honey."

To be sure, "Ali" shows the boxer's conflicts with women and hissomewhat boisterous manner and outbursts toward his boxing opponents.But the movie's message of religious conviction in the face of adversitypropels its story.

Ali fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, in 1971,the judges unanimously overturned his conviction on the grounds ofreligious freedom. The victory was bittersweet for The Champ, who hadsacrificed his boxing career and lost much of his fortune in order tofollow what he believed was God's call. Ali eventually returned to theboxing arena.

For Rivele, the movie demonstrates how one man's belief in God canchange history. His hope is that younger audience members will walk awaywith the movie's message of tolerance and nonviolence.

"If you truly believe in the good and what is right and you areprepared to sacrifice, you can change the way people think and you canchange the way whole societies think without resorting to violence," hesaid.

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