Film Review: Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”

Bill Siegel’s lively, illuminating documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” begins with two juxtaposed scenes that concisely illustrate the extreme poles of opinion on the boxing icon that is its subject. In the first scene, Ali is excoriated on British television in 1968 by talk show host David Susskind, who calls him “a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughably describes as his profession,” as well as a “simplistic fool and a pawn.” Cut to nearly four decades later and Ali, reduced by advanced age and Parkinson’s disease but still maintaining his iconic presence, is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, who remarks that “the American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own.”

Muhammad Ali is now such a beloved and revered figure – and the subject of numerous books, documentaries and dramatic features – that it’s easy to forget what a divisive and controversial figure he was in the 1960’s. This is what makes “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” particularly valuable: it examines a pivotal but under-reported period of Ali’s life, one in which he was kept away from boxing, consumed by the battles he had to fight outside the ring. With his canny use of archival material and revealing reminiscences by those closest to him, Siegel gives us a new angle on Ali, leaving the viewer with the lasting impression that the way in which he dealt with his “trials,” both legal and otherwise, is as worthy of admiration as his considerable achievements in boxing.

Siegel briefly sketches Ali’s early years, during which the young Louisville, Kentucky native and Olympic champion, then known as Cassius Clay, impressed observers with his charm, charisma, and brash wit. But then came his first challenge to admirers: his conversion to a Muslim and embrace of the Nation of Islam, regarded as a scary, black nationalist cult, and his attendant name change to Muhammad Ali. His reasons for this are illuminated by Louis Farrakhan and others who introduced him to the religion; he greatly admired these dignified, clean-cut, suit-wearing black men who represented a great noble image for his race. Ali’s choice was met with immediate resistance from members of the public and the media establishment. Robert Lipsyte, then a writer for The New York Times and one of the film’s best interviewees, makes particularly salient points on this refusal to accept Ali on his own terms. For quite a long time, The Times insisted on continuing to call Ali Cassius Clay, though Lipsyte tried to slip it in whenever he could. Lipsyte is very critical of the paper’s blatant bias in regards to Ali; he points out that no one ever insisted that John Wayne or Rock Hudson be referred to by their birth names.

As much as Ali was criticized for his Muslim faith, he was even more vilified and regarded as a public enemy when he publicly refused to fight in Vietnam, famously stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” Things came to a head in 1967, when after the government denied Ali’s claim to conscientious objector status, he refused induction into the army. Ali was convicted of draft-dodging, fined and sentenced to five years in prison. This period of his life is the real meat of the documentary: four years during which he went through many legal appeals, while being essentially banned from boxing – he was refused licenses by state authorities – and stripped of his title. Ali was essentially an exile within his own country, unable to travel abroad since his passport was revoked, and forced to find other ways to make a living. Ali eventually went on the college lecture circuit, where he morphed from giving stiffly doctrinaire speeches where he proselytized for the Nation of Islam, to much looser and more interactive speaking appearances, where he directly confronted students who argued with him on political and religious issues. He also embarked on various side pursuits, the most curious of which had him starring in the political Broadway musical “Buck White.” The footage of Ali and the cast singing one of the songs is a particular, if rather strange, highlight of the film.

Meanwhile, the draft-dodging case dragged on until 1971, when the Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn his conviction. Tellingly, this was decided not as an unambiguous affirmation of Ali’s right to refuse military service, but on the basis of a narrow technicality. To put it in boxing terms, Ali won by points instead of scoring a knockout. This revealed, in the words of one commentator (a court clerk who worked on the case), how “arbitrary and capricious” the U.S. legal justice system could be. But in any case, a win’s a win, and Ali was finally able to get back to boxing.

However – and this is the documentary’s one weakness – we’re not really shown how Ali managed to rebuild his career and his reputation to become the highly respected figure he is today. Instead, in the latter sections of the film, we fast forward past the conclusion of the case, and the interviewees wax rhapsodic about Ali’s greatness and courage. While this is undeniably true – and we’re reminded of more recent events such as the still incredibly moving footage of Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics – without connecting the dots of how he made the transition from being considered America’s enemy to being embraced as a national treasure, the story feels somewhat incomplete.

Nevertheless, Siegel has created a riveting, rounded portrait of Ali, one which admirably does not shy away from the contradictions and ironies of its subject, as well as some of the less admirable aspects of his character. For example, as demanded by the Nation of Islam, he rejected Cassius Clay as a “slave name” despite the fact that he was named after a prominent Kentucky abolitionist. Also, he twice severely punished opponents in the ring, well past what was necessary to defeat them, when they disrespected him by continuing to call him Cassius Clay. And even as Ali was going around saying that white people were devils, he was backed and advised by the Louisville Sponsoring Group, which was made up of older white men. It was also quite ironic that even as Ali was so forceful in standing up against the U.S. government when it tried to force him to go against his conscience, he was so willfully blind to the Nation of Islam’s internal problems, such as Elijah Muhammad’s moral corruption, and their involvement in Malcolm X’s assassination. (Siegel has said in interviews that Ali now deeply regrets not supporting Malcolm X and being so unquestioning of the Nation of Islam’s actions.)

However, this acknowledgement of Ali’s flaws takes nothing away from our impression of how great he was, and gives us a much fuller picture of him as a human being, without indulging in simplistic hagiography. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” makes a powerful case that this largely hidden period of Ali’s life is crucial to fully understanding this remarkable man.

“The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” released by Kino Lorber, is now playing in New York at the IFC Center. For showtimes and tickets, visit the IFC Center’s website. For more information on the film and playdates across the U.S., visit Kino Lorber’s website.

Trailer: “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”