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Singling out the most dramatic period in a career that was never short on color, Bill Siegel‘s The Trials of Muhammad Ali focuses on a time not only before Ali’s iconic status was assured, but when even the fame brought by his 1960 Olympic gold medal was in danger of being overshadowed by the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding his embrace of Islam. The film captures the thrill of Ali’s personality even for viewers with little interest in the sweet science, and is meaty enough to merit arthouse bookings on its way to small screens.
Siegel starts his film in savvy fashion, contrasting a poignant scene from the height of Ali’s infamy — a British chat show on which he sits calmly while David Susskind declares, “I find nothing … tolerable about this man … a simplistic fool and a pawn” — with the sight, decades later, of George W. Bush awarding him the Medal of Freedom.
Both Ali and America changed in the years between those episodes, but Trials is most interested in what could provoke reactions like Susskind’s, especially given how warmly the boxer was embraced at first. In a few well-chosen clips, we are reminded how Cassius Clay won fans at the start of his career, and how charismatic he could be when interviewed. We learn a bit about his Louisville youth and the team of eleven white investors who backed his professional aspirations, but the real story begins when Clay, working in Miami, grows increasingly interested in the Nation of Islam.
Interviewing men like “Captain Sam,” a close friend during this period, Siegel shows how fully the athlete embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and how incensed he was when, after he was given his new name, boxing opponents refused to use it. New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte, who covered Ali for years, recalls the “truly terrible moment in the history of boxing” when Ali made a point of punishing Floyd Patterson in the ring, beating him beyond the point where the fight should’ve ended.
(The lighter side of Clay’s transformation into Ali comes via Khalilah Camacho-Ali, who recalls meeting the man she would later marry and tearing up the autograph he had just given her, telling Cassius Clay he needed to learn his true identity.)
Siegel, who as co-director of The Weather Underground proved adept at capturing the cultural/political flavor of a moment in history, does so again here — bringing to life not just Ali’s fervent (some say unsophisticated) espousal of Nation of Islam dogma and his response to the falling-out between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, but the way the nation’s shifting mood made Ali’s rejection of the draft a seemingly fatal PR move.
Siegel’s film follows the literal trials that followed — with Ali receiving a five-year prison sentence that would be overturned years later by the Supreme Court — but is more interested in the effect legal and reputation issues had on Ali’s livelihood: Rejected by state boxing commissions, he tried setting up bouts everywhere from Alcatraz to a stripped-out airliner that would fly above states’ jurisdictions.
Trials has a lot to juggle during years when Ali kept afloat with speaking engagements and side gigs (including a strange quasi-musical play, seen briefly here), and the doc’s focus briefly turns hazy. Glossing over the fighter’s return to the ring and the decades since, the film touches on the evolution of Ali’s racial ideology — which at one point was so rigid he told an interviewer that he truly believed all white people were devils — without getting into specifics.
But the film mostly ignores the question of how America came back around to idolizing him, letting a few images do the talking. Closing footage of Ali — made shaky by Parkinson’s but still regal — lighting the Olympic torch in 1996, is more moving than any talking-head testimony could be.
Production Company: Kartemquin Films
Director: Bill Siegel
Producers: Rachel Pikelny, Bill Siegel
Executive producers: Leon Gast, Kat White, Sally Jo Fifer, Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn
Music: Joshua Abrams
Editor: Aaron Wickenden
Sales: Bill Siegel, Kartemquin Films
No rating, 86 minutes
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