Bill Siegel's hard-hitting yet delightful documentary. "The Trials of Muhammad Ali," pulls no punches. It tells the true story about the boxer's greatest fight -- which took place outside of the ring, in the courthouse and the court of public opinion.
The film follows Cassius Clay to Rome, where the 18-year-old Louisville slugger wins Olympic gold in 1960 and goes on to defy the odds by handily defeating Sonny Liston in a 1964 heavyweight match in Miami. As world champion, the Kentucky pugilist pulls an even bigger upset: Clay joins the separatist, militant Nation of Islam, aka the Black Muslims, and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. All this sets the charismatic, loudmouthed champion of Black rights on a collision course with Uncle Sam, when he is drafted in 1967 but refuses to be inducted into the armed forces.
Ali rather famously declared that he had "no quarrel" with the Viet Cong, who'd "never called" him the N-word. On screen he makes a gloriously defiant speech at a college campus, refusing to fight the white man's war against other dark-skinned peoples, while white supremacists oppress Blacks back home in America. (Will Smith spoke similar dialogue during the induction center scene in the 2001 biopic "Ali.")
Stripped of his heavyweight belt and facing five years in prison plus a $10,000 fine, Ali embarks on a courtroom crusade to win conscientious objector status as a NOI minister and to return to the ring to win his championship title back. Unlike other films such as 1996's "When We Were Kings" -- which won the Best Documentary Oscar and focused on Ali's 1974 comeback attempt in the ring against George Foreman in Zaire -- "Trials" concentrates on the political persecution of Ali, his growing Black consciousness, antiwar activism and legal struggle for vindication. The doc makes the compelling case that these were truly "the Greatest's" greatest bouts, and takes us inside of the Supreme Court's legal wrangling and complex deliberations.
Bill Siegel -- who co-directed 2002's "The Weather Underground," an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the extremist offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society -- skillfully directs "The Trials of Muhammad Ali." In terms of archival footage Siegel has an embarrassment of reel riches to choose from. The director, a researcher for the 1994 Oscar-nominated doc "Hoop Dreams," selects wisely and edits a knockout.
Highlights include the doc's opening, with a black and white clip of talk show host David Susskind, the archetypal liberal, delivering an excoriating televised verbal assault on Ali during his draft trials and tribulations that is even more vituperative than segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox's later remarks. On the other hand, there is a color clip of neocon George W. Bush awarding the athlete the Medal of Freedom in a 2005 White House ceremony. There is much footage of Malcolm X -- before and after his split from the NOI. In other shots, Ali the separatist hugs Martin Luther King and calls the integrationist "brother;" in another clip Dr. King calls on all young men to do as Ali did by filing for C.O. status and lauding his "courage" for refusing to fight in Vietnam. A laughing Coretta Scott King later tells Ali he is "our champion in boxing and in justice."
We also hear from Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown along with famous African American sports figures. Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain and John Carlos, who made a gloved Black power salute during the 1968 Olympics awards ceremony in Mexico, support Ali, while ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis and baseball's racial trendsetter Jackie Robinson (who similarly betrayed Paul Robeson in the 1950s) oppose him. Meanwhile, the recently deceased talk show great David Frost takes the blustery Ali to task for calling all white people "devils."
The documentary also includes lots of original interviews with insiders, from sports columnists to family members to activists. Khalilah Ali, the boxer's second wife and mother of four out of nine of Ali's children, who was married to him during his courtroom battles and exile from the ring, supplies intimate details. His younger brother Rahman Ali (born Rudolph) also provides insight and speaks movingly about the champ's darkest hours. Minister Louis Farrakhan gives context from an NOI and political point of view.
Siegel unearths some surprises, including footage of Ali's star turn in a Broadway musical "Buck White" while he was banished from the arena. Unfortunately, there isn't material of Ali reciting his witty original poetry, but the larger than life personality of the brash, charming once and future "People's Champion" keeps the documentary moving along at a brisk pace. No rope-a-dope or boring history lesson here; thanks to its subject this well-crafted doc packs a wallop as an eye-opener for those old enough to remember and for viewers unfamiliar with what made its title character one of the greatest athletes of all time.
"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" is currently playing in New York, Atlanta and Dallas and opens Sept. 27 in Los Angeles, Denver Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore and Santa Fe.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and the author of Progressive Hollywood: A People's Film History of the United States. The new book he has co-authored about Hawaii's movies and TV shows will be published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing in September. Rampell has interviewed many artists for The Progressive, including Oliver Stone, Ken Burns, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Ed Asner, W. S. Merwin, Cenk Uygur, and Michael Apted.