If all you know about Cassius Clay is that he is a former black American heavyweight boxing champion who changed his name, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is probably not the best place to start. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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Bill Siegel’s documentary is definitely worth seeing, although it would help to have a little background on the Ali saga. That being said, it wasn’t the director’s intention to show how and why this particular man became literally the most recognizable face on the planet during the last four decades of the 20th century. That film has already been made, and more than once.
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is not a boxing movie. Instead, the documentary focuses on Ali’s inner wars, showing how a world famous super-celebrity channeled his controlled rage in response to racial and social injustice.
Like most sports, boxing is not known for fostering ethical and moral reflection. Siegel tries to show what motivated Ali – given his elevated status as heavyweight champion of the world – to embark on a path that was certain to be more arduous than doing an easy two years in the Army.
Instead, the champ renounced his “slave name”; jettisoned his Baptist upbringing; converted to Islam, then Sufism; battled the government to overturn a felony conviction for evading the draft; fought the boxing association to regain his title; and now struggles with Parkinson's disease.
At his 1967 trial for draft evasion, the jury came back with a guilty verdict after deliberating for less than 30 minutes. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.
While Ali appealed the sentence, no jurisdiction would sanction a match. Creative boxing promoter Henry Winston tried to organize an event on Alcatraz (American Indians occupied the island from 1969 to 1971). His attempt to sell 200 ultra high-priced tickets and stage the fight inside a stripped down 757 airliner flying seven miles up over international airspace wasn’t any more successful.
When Ali turned his aggression on his opponents in the ring, it was much more than just a boxing match – it was an event – a battle in the ongoing culture war. Ali rails over not being allowed to box and shell out $6 million in taxes that “could pay the salary of 50,000 men.” Besides, as he once famously said, "Ain't no Vietcong ever called me nigger."
While many, irrespective of race, admired his early stand against the Vietnam War, cutting-edge ‘60s talk show host David Susskind opined Ali was “a simplistic fool and a pawn” and “convicted felon who should go to prison.” Even baseball great Jackie Robinson and former heavyweight champ Joe Louis agreed.
Journalist Salim Muwakkil describes how many young black Americans had a different reaction to Ali: “We wanted to overcome yesterday, not someday.”
On the downside, one might have wished to hear a little less of Louis Farrakhan and Rahman Ali (Ali’s brother); their contributions begin to wear thin about halfway through the film.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction for draft evasion on a unanimous 8-0 vote (Thurgood Marshall abstained).
See playdates and locations for “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” HERE.
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