By Linc Leifeste | April 21, 2014
Director: Bill Siegel
I love Muhammad Ali. You probably love Muhammad Ali. But what do either of us really know about the man and his true history? At 72-years of age and in a debilitated state, he’s no longer in the public eye, allowing him to live on as a bigger-than-life figure, more myth than flesh and blood man. If not for those indelible images of a weak, shaking Ali lighting the Olympic torch or of President Bush hanging the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, Ali would probably still live on in my mind as a youthful, beautiful, brash force of nature. The greatest boxer ever, who danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee, who endlessly trash-talked in eloquent rhyme while his eyes twinkled mischievously, who would step in the ring and rope a dope his opponent before savagely knocking them to the canvas.
Originally born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., Ali began his journey into national prominence at the age of 18 by winning the the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the result being that Clay’s maturation to adulthood took place in the public eye. Unlike most black boxers before him, Clay was outspoken, brash and arrogant, the kind of black man white America has always loved to hate. But when he took on Sonny Liston for the title in 1964, a 7-1 underdog, and came out on top, he showed that he was much more than talk. And he kept showing that in and out of the ring for many years to come.
The story of that Ali has been told countless times, and rightfully so. But with The Trials of Muhammad Ali, director Bill Siegel magnificently tells the tale of another Ali. Most people know that Ali was born Cassius Clay and only changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam but there’s a lot more to that story than a name change. Clay was born in Louisville, Kentucky into a middle class Christian family and after his Olympic success was backed by a group of prominent white Louisville businessmen. By the age of 22, he was the champ, and theoretically had the world on a string. But Clay was a black man and keenly aware that no matter what level of success he achieved, he’d always be a second class citizen.
Clay, as the film clearly establishes, was a relentless scrapper in and out of the ring and an independent spirit, not one to go along to get along. He refused to play the expected role of the submissive black man, to hold his tongue and “yessir” and “no sir” his white interlocutors. So when Clay was exposed to the black militant religious teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, the appeal was great for obvious reasons. Siegel’s film focuses on that conversion and its aftermath, with much of the media behaving like stunned, petulant children, refusing to call Ali by his new name or to show any respect for the man’s faith or views.
This all came to a head when Ali was drafted to serve in Vietnam and refused on the grounds of his religious faith, claiming to be a conscientious objector. Already an embattled figure, this episode brought Ali’s standing in the public eye to new lows, with not only white America showing disgust but also revered black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis speaking out against Ali’s refusal to serve. Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. While that decision worked its long way through the appeals process, Ali was banned from fighting in his country. It is this period of Ali’s wandering in the wilderness that has largely been forgotten by the American public that is at the heart of The Trials of Muhammad Ali.
Had Ali wound up in jail for five years, which was a very real possibility, his career would have been derailed and his story would have been completely different. Instead his case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and in a story that is itself deserving of its own documentary, his conviction was ultimately reversed and he was able to continue his boxing career. Throughout this long, trying period, Ali remained true to his convictions and in the process showed the best reasons for thinking of him as a champion and an American hero.
Beautifully and movingly presented through a treasure trove of archival footage and images along with extensive interviews with Khalilah Camacho-Ali, Ali’s second wife, Minister Louis Farrakhan, journalist Salim Muwakkil and Rahaman Ali, the boxer’s brother, the film provides a compelling and revealing look at race, religion, culture and society in 1960’s America. We see Ali not only having to figure out how to best navigate white America, but how to navigate black America, torn between the competing visions of Martin Luther King and Elijah Muhammad, and how to navigate through the Nation of Islam as the visions of people like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan rise to prominence to compete with the dominant power structures. And in the process, we realize that Ali’s battles in the ring, as epic as they were, were just a shadow of the lifelong battles the man fought outside the ring.