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There have been more than a few film biographies and career overviews of Muhammad Ali. 2013's The Trials of Muhammad Ali is the first documentary I've seen that provides enough information, background, context and commentary to offer a reasonable understanding of the peculiar challenges faced by this larger-than-life and wholly controversial historical figure.
Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) and co-producer Rachel Pikelny have obtained every relevant piece of news film one can imagine, and a few more. They have new interview input from family members, one of Ali's original managers, famous representatives of the Black Muslim movement and another sports figure caught up in the turmoil of the 1960s. The crux of the problem was this: black heroes were so rare at the time that Muhammad Ali felt automatically became a symbol of his race. He felt compelled to raise his voice in a white majority country hostile to the idea of a black man speaking out in any forum. Besides the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world, who did this Cassius Clay think he was?
Starting with family home movies from Kentucky, the sentimental aspects of Ali's life are handled by his brother and his second wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali. She proudly recalls challenging him when he visited her school. A teenager, she tore up his autograph and asked him why he was using his slave name Cassius Clay instead of adopting a true Muslim name. The boxer was stupefied.
After medaling in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ali finds that his swift ascent in pro boxing is marked with resistance against his boastful attitude, fast-talking style and show-off theatricality. Sports writers gang up to label him disgraceful and unsportsmanlike, when it's simply not his nature to play humble for anybody, especially not white audiences. The professional writers also say that he doesn't deserve a title shot, even though he puts down one opponent after another. The clips we see from his big fights show Ali's incredible reflexes -- he taunts other boxes with a clear target and but dodges almost every punch. His 'float like a butterfly' catchphrase is no idle boast.
The controversies really arise when Muhammad Ali finally admits that he's joined the Black Muslim movement and believes in its tenets, one of which is segregation of the races. This is of course in direct conflict with Christian Martin Luther King's philosophy: the Black Muslims say that they want nothing from the white man but their freedom. We immediately see Ali verbally scrapping with hostile interviewers that try to bait him by persisting in using his discarded name.
Ali comes off as sincere and devout about his newfound religion. His position as the most famous black man alive figures from time to time in the conflicts within the movement, between its elderly leader who wants to form a dynasty, and the more militant Malcolm X. Louis Farrakhan explains the problems in his interview. White Americans are uncomfortable with blacks organizing in any form; if they reject Martin Luther King it's obvious that they consider the Muslims an open threat. Ali joins the list of citizens spied on by the F.B.I.
The biggest issue arises when Ali is drafted and he files as a conscientious objector for religious reasons. Everything is weighted against him. He's a pro fighter who won't fight for his country, as did earlier black champions. His speaking out in public against the war -- the famous line being, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger" -- makes it easy for Boxing Commissions in every state to blackball him from the rign. He begins an endless trial process that could earn him five years in jail. What's really at stake, of course, are the hundreds of thousands of black inductees the army thinks it will lose if Muhammad goes unpunished.
Some really raw clips show Muhammad Ali being berated, lectured to, insulted and verbally tarred by 'conservative' spokesmen David Susskind (whose attack opens the show) and William F. Buckley. Even Jerry Lewis gets in on the act, pointing his finger at Ali and shouting at him to "shut up." Assuming the role of speaking for an entire sector of the public has its downside.
These are the real "The Trials of Muhammad Ali", and he rises to the challenge as best he can. To make a living he goes out on speaking engagements. The first of these are just awful, as he spouts Black Muslim rhetoric and looks ill at ease. But he mellows out, becoming a responsive public speaker when talking at campuses and taking criticism from students. His arguments are good and his attitude admirable.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali also has several videotaped color clips from Muhammad Ali's one venture into Broadway theater, Buck White. In what looks like a Biblical wig and beard, he sings and orates from the stage while dancers carrying chains whirl around him. It's pretty terrible and very typical of "right on!" political theater.
What keeps the docu alive is the sheer volume of choice original TV news film, with famous network anchormen reporting on Ali's situation and the progress of his draft-dodging case, which goes to the Supreme Court. An ex- court clerk explains the particulars of the voting, and the curious string of logic that leads to Ali's exoneration. Celebrity, notoriety and exceptionalism certainly have something to do with the decision, but so does the fact that Ali was right about the war in Vietnam. By the time the trial was concluded, a much larger swath of the American public was against the war. Ali didn't recant and was prepared to take the consequences for his convictions, and thus fully earned his status as American hero.
Ali's return to fighting isn't covered as thoroughly, but we are given a nice coda about his family life. The docu is more about the man's politics and social stance, than the details of his fighting career. We eventually see Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics, his hands shaking with Parkinson's Disease.
Interestingly, the strongest support for Ali's political stance comes from John Carlos, one of the black track stars at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics who raised black-gloved fists on the dais after winning their medals. Carlos explains why he did the salute, and that he doesn't do it any more, as he's made his statement. He instead points proudly at a younger man saluting in the same pose, acknowledging his influence on black pride. The Trials of Muhammad Ali is an excellent documentary to counter the current propaganda notion that America is now in a post-racial mode.
Kino Lorber's DVD of The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a nicely turned out docu from disparate sources, all of which look very good. The image is widescreen enhanced, with vintage news film pillar-boxed to retain the full image.
The docu was produced by a company called Kartemquin, which made the noted Hoop Dreams. Extras include two audio commentaries, a short debate film called The Mock Trials of Muhammad Ali and a number of deleted scenes, including one in which Ali meets and clowns around with the Beatles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.