“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” When Muhammad Ali spoke those words, or some variant thereof, he really did shake up the world – and not just the sports world. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, a new documentary opening Sept. 13 in Atlanta, looks back on Ali’s conversion to Islam and his subsequent refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.
While there have been a bunch of documentaries on Ali – several of them excellent – none have zeroed in on the key events outside the ring in the ‘60s and early ‘70s that propelled Ali from the sports pages to the front pages and turned him into a worldwide celeb both loved and hated.
Ali began his professional boxing career under his given name Cassius Clay, but as the U.S. Olympic gold medalist began racking up wins and paychecks, the heavyweight championship wasn’t the only thing on his mind. As The Trials of Muhammad Ali shows, Clay was struggling with questions of identity and race in an America in which blacks were still frequently treated as second-class citizens.
He found answers in the Nation of Islam, first via Captain Sam, a Muslim he met while training in Miami, and then through Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad and his right-hand man, Malcolm X. Before long Cassius Clay was Cassius X and, soon thereafter, Muhammad Ali.
The conversion and name change angered the white establishment, and the viewer gets a first-hand view of the action through tense exchanges between Ali and journalists, talk-show hosts and boxing opponents that are served up via an impressive selection of archival footage. Some called Ali a puppet of the Nation, others an African-American hero establishing his autonomy. Academy Award-nominated director Bill Siegel presents a wide range of clips and lets viewers reach their own conclusions.
If Ali’s membership in the Nation was a sore point, things got really ugly when he refused to serve in the Vietnam War, claiming conscientious objector status based on his Islamic faith. In a country already divided by the conflict, the stance by one of the country’s most famous athletes not only whipped up a firestorm of controversy, but also led to Ali’s conviction and exile from the ring.
Again, Siegel uses archival footage and interviews with Ali contemporaries such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, New York Times writer Robert Lipstye and 1968 Olympic track gold medalist John Carlos to bring the era into perspective. We see Ali, touring college campuses to make ends meet during his appeals process, interact with students – some cheering wildly, others appalled by his rhetoric. And we watch as Martin Luther King declares, “No matter what you think of Mr. Muhammad Ali’s religion, you certainly have to admire his courage.”
We also get a closer look at the court battle Ali waged, which worked its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, and this is one of the areas where The Trials of Muhammad Ali really shines. Most summaries of the high court’s verdict simply reference the unanimous decision to overturn the conviction. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, using interviews with a law clerk for one of the Supreme Court Justices at the time, reveals a deeply divided court and the legal technicality that really set Ali free.
Another strength is the film’s multidimensional treatment of Ali. Most portrayals today either elevate him to sainthood or blow his failings way out of proportion. Siegel opts to dig deeper. Viewers will find much to admire and perhaps plenty to cringe at here depending on their personal beliefs. Even without fresh interviews with Ali — an impossibility given his fight with Parkinson’s — it’s a fascinating portrait.
Siegel rarely missteps, but his decision to leave longtime Ali trainer Angelo Dundee out of the story (save for one brief reference) is puzzling. At the same time Ali was declaring “all white people devils,” the white Dundee was his confidante in and out of the ring. Digging into this relationship might have brought fascinating insights into how Ali balanced his public rhetoric with his private interactions, but the film doesn’t go there.
Still, it’s a minor quibble given all that The Trials of Muhammad Ali gets right. If you want to understand the most important athlete of the 20th century, watch this film back-to-back with Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. In a world in which most athletes seem too self-absorbed or scared to comment on issues of social or political significance, Ali walked the walk when he declared “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.”
"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" opens in Atlanta on Sept. 13 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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