Muhammad Ali is one of the most documented sports legends of the last half century. Many documentaries exist about his life and career, so a challenge emerges in finding something new among the myths, legends, records, and misperceptions surrounding him. Bill Siegel uncovers a missing chapter with The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which recounts the period during the 1960s and early 1970s of Ali’s conversion to Islam, his ban from boxing, and his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.
While today Ali draws reverence, the opening clip of this documentary quickly establishes how this respect was not always the case. In one of the many well-chosen archival materials, this one from The Eamonn Andrews Show, U.S. television host David Susskind delivers some scathing remarks about and to Ali, who appears via satellite:
“I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
Susskind’s comments set up some key themes woven throughout the piece. The biting comments also suggest some of the harsher opinions to come, not only from the media, but also from sports figures and others.
Ali’s looking down with a grim expression while Susskind speaks offers a stark contrast to those who know the fighter as the Louisville Lip. He is not silent for long, however.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali weaves aspects of Ali’s boxing career, his associations with Islam, and the public reactions against the understandings of racial politics and identity in the 1960s. One Ali’s key struggles during this period was getting the media and others to address him by his Islamic name, and not his slave name of Cassius Clay. While archival materials offer some press perspectives, The New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte provides more depth and explanation about Ali’s intersections with the press and the boxing industry. Lipsyte explains how he attempted to use Muhammad Ali’s name whenever he could, even though a higher-up in the newspaper deemed Clay to be the proper reference. In several pieces of archival footage, Ali continuously corrects the people who keep calling him Clay. Even fighters such as Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell refused to address him as Ali, and Ali went on to beat them soundly in scheduled fights. He even took Terrell to 15 rounds.
To explain the name change and these struggles, the documentary offers interviews with members and leaders such as Abdul Rahman Muhammad, Abdul Bey Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan, who explain Ali’s place within the faith, the shifting understanding of the faith, and even the contemporary perceptions of it. Particularly important here are their comments about black identity informing a separatist ideal under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, an ideal that informs Ali’s comments in his interviews and speeches.
Khalilah Camacho-Ali, married to Ali from 1967 to 1975, shares their experiences through not only Islam but also through the family’s personal struggles during those years when Ali was not allowed to fight.
Camacho-Ali is a strong woman with a sharp wit and mind, and her personality comes through with every comment she makes. She grew up in the faith, and she recounts a great story wherein then-Clay boasted he would be champion by the age of 21 and that people should get his autograph now. When he signed one for her, she tore the paper up, telling him that wasn’t his real name. Only after he became Muhammad Ali did she recognize his real name.
When Ali was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, he refused induction into the Army as a conscientious objector and on religious grounds. Ali’s reactions to the possibility included citing how his income taxes paid salaries, how he had nothing against the Vietcong, and how Islam was a peaceful faith. Gordon B. Davidson, the only living backer left from the group of Louisville businessmen who supported the fighter’s early career, explains how they tried to find alternatives with other military units that might help him dodge the front lines. In the end, Ali’s choice meant that he lost his title, he lost his license to fight, and he separated from his financial backers. An all-white jury convicted him within half an hour, fining him $10,000 to go along with a five-year jail sentence.
Without the license to fight and while free on bail, Ali needed another way to support his wife and growing family. Here the arrangement of the archival footage proves subtle and insightful. Early in the documentary, we see Ali’s speaking style as verbose and humored but not necessarily polished. As the documentary progresses and as his speaking style develops, we hear more sophistication in his ideas and the expression of those ideas.
The archival footage proves to be one of the key strengths of this documentary. With the foregrounding of the story, it becomes easy to overlook the range and depth of the footage included because everything flows so well. In addition to the news coverage perspectives, we hear World War II veterans Jackie Robinson and Joe Lewis express their disappointment at his decision. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. offer their views on Islam and Ali. A more amusing piece of footage shows Ali performing on Broadway in a play titled Buck White, part of his money-earning attempts during his forced boxing hiatus.
Not all archival footage is motion picture. The still footage also becomes a tool for evoking emotion. One particularly startling image shows a group of white people standing around, but as the camera slowly moves over, we see one person pointing up. The camera follows the pointing to show a double lynching.
As Ali works as a public speaker at college campuses and other venues, his case works its way through the courts and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court. Former court clerk Thomas G. Krattenmaker, who served from 1970-1971, attempts to explain the complexities of Ali’s court case, the high court’s process, and its eventual decision, after which Ali is allowed to return to professional fighting.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali winds down with comments about the changing perceptions of Islam, the changes in Ali’s personal life, and some reminders of the legend as he is seen today. Probably the best tribute to Ali, though, comes from his brother Rahaman Ali, who is overcome with emotion when talking about the struggles his brother faced.
A subtle but powerful contribution to this documentary is the music by Joshua Abrams. His compositions offer the right combination of horns and snare on the right combinations of down-tempo and up-tempo. While music sometimes becomes an afterthought to the overall message or story, Abrams’ music aids the storytelling, linking the array of footage.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali fills in a chapter sometimes left untold in the myths and legends the fighter’s life, balancing the recounting of a difficult period in his life while maintaining a reverence for a man who billed himself as “The Greatest.”
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is now playing in select theaters across the United States. Visit the film’s official website for more information about nationwide screenings and events.